A Baltimore developer known for breathing new life into crumbling architectural landmarks has purchased a run-down medical waste incinerator with a history of air pollution violations.
Samuel K. Himmelrich Jr. says he has installed a $200,000 pollution filtration system at the Phoenix Services incinerator in Curtis Bay that he hopes will remove more than 90 percent of its mercury air pollution, which can cause brain damage in infants.
And he said he plans to invest as much as $4 million over three years to fix up the decaying plant.
The beige steel building topped by a rusty smokestack off Hawkins Point Road is one of the largest medical waste incinerators in the nation, burning 70 percent of the hazardous garbage from Maryland's hospitals.
It has attracted criticism for breaking legal limits for emissions of mercury, soot and other air pollutants more than 400 times over the past two years, according to state records.
"This incinerator is perceived by environmentalists and others as a terrible business, and yet we're confident that with focus and real work this will be absolutely the best way for the region to manage its medical waste," said Himmelrich, 50, the developer of Meadow Mills in Hampden, Mount Washington Mill in North Baltimore, Montgomery Park in Southwest Baltimore and other high-profile projects.
Although he never owned an incinerator before, Himmelrich said he is attracted to challenges and able to see profit in messy projects that others have written off as hopeless.
Local officials and environmentalists say they are skeptical about Himmelrich's plans -- which include renaming the plant Curtis Bay Energy -- because previous owners made promises that were never kept.
"There is obviously a lot of money in medical waste," said state Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel Democrat. "I'm somewhat encouraged if the new owner is willing to make capital investments. But we are not going to tolerate continued violations."
City Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, a Democrat from South Baltimore, said: "I still think the plant should be closed down. We don't want any more medical waste to be coming in from New York and New Jersey to be burned here in Baltimore."
Reisinger said he is pushing ahead with legislation, introduced last month, that would bar the plant from accepting waste from outside Maryland. Such waste accounts for about 20 percent of the 80 tons of soiled bandages, gauze and other hazardous materials burned at the plant daily.
Environmentalists said the 12 major local hospitals that send waste to the plant -- including Anne Arundel Medical Center, Greater Baltimore Medical Center, University of Maryland Medical Center and others -- should follow the example of Johns Hopkins Hospital.
After more than a decade of using the Phoenix plant, Hopkins persuaded a judge to terminate its contract with Phoenix last year for failing to pick up waste on time, among other service problems, according to court records.
The hospital is now sterilizing and shredding the 4.8 million pounds of medical waste it produces every year, a method it regards as more environmentally sound, said Todd Gartrell, Johns Hopkins' director of environmental services.
The hospital has stopped using medical equipment containing mercury, which in the past was incinerated. Hopkins also hired a contractor to build a machine called a rotoclave that kills germs in the garbage by spinning it through jets of steam heated to 250 degrees, Gartrell said. The waste is then buried or burned.
"Over the years, the general rule of thumb is that hospitals of our size are moving toward rotoclaving," he said. "It's an easier system, it sterilizes the waste and there is no smokestack sticking out of your building."
Officials with Greater Baltimore Medical Center and Anne Arundel Medical Center said they hope Himmelrich cleans up the plant because their hospitals are locked into contracts with Phoenix that don't expire for six years.
"Mr. Himmelrich sounds like a straight shooter, very progressive. But he's kind of the new kid on the block when it comes to incineration, so time will tell whether he solves the problems," said Frank Monius, an assistant vice president of the Maryland Hospital Association.
In 2003, the incinerator released 198 pounds of mercury air pollutants, about 5 percent of the state's total. During a tour of the plant this week, Himmelrich showed visitors a 20-foot-tall machine that injects carbon powder -- which helps to capture mercury air pollutants -- into the exhaust leaving the burn chambers.
Himmelrich said the filter is one of several upgrades he plans to put into operation at the plant, which he bought Feb. 18 for an amount he did not reveal. Other upgrades may include recycling some of the plant's heat to generate electricity.
He said he is sympathetic to environmental goals. The Montgomery Ward building he rebuilt into the headquarters of the Maryland Department of the Environment won a national award from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2003 for its recycling of an old industrial site and its energy efficiency, which includes an environmentally friendly roof, where greenery helps to contain rainwater and reduce runoff into waterways.
"Sam Himmelrich has done a lot of good projects in the city, but he also has some ideas we strongly oppose," said Brad Heavner, director of Maryland Public Interest Research Group, an environmental organization. "We can deal with medical waste in a more safe and clean manner than incineration, and we should do that."