A $26 million medical waste incinerator, the nation's largest, has begun to burn hospital refuse just across the northeastern Anne Arundel County border in Hawkins Point.

Even as a lawsuit aimed at blocking the incinerator works its way through the Maryland courts, Consumat Inc. -- a Richmond, Va., contractor that is building the incinerator for a group of Maryland investors -- has begun testing the facility by burning medical wastes from Baltimore's Kernan Hospital.

John Joiner, Consumat vice president, said the facility could begin accepting wastes from a second hospital in February. The incinerator will be fully operational, serving nearly two dozen Baltimore hospitals and private health clinics, by May 21, Joiner said.

The state Department of the Environment granted Consumat a 90-day permit on Nov. 11 to begin testing anti-pollution controls, said DOE spokesman Michael Sullivan. When that permit expires Feb. 11, Sullivan said Consumat can request the temporary permit be renewed for up to a year.

Consumat will ask the state to renew the test permit in February andexpects to have the final permit by May, Joiner said.

The investor group, Medical Waste Associates, will then assume ownership, said William Boucher, president of Medical Waste Associates. Boucher said the owners will pay Consumat to continue operating the incinerator.

A fully operational incinerator will burn between 70 and 130 tons ofinfectious medical waste per day.

North County and Curtis Bay residents, who are worried the incinerator could release hazardous emissions, filed suit in September 1989 to block construction and operation.

Their attorneys argue that the state should never have approvedconstruction of such a large incinerator in an area already in violation of the federal Clean Air Act.

The Curtis Bay area violates primary air standards for ozone, a poisonous gas, and secondary standards for particulates, dusts that can harm lungs, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said. Primary standards are levels that can harm health; secondary standards are levels at which pollution can damage agriculture and buildings.

Medical Waste Associates proposed its facility less than a year after residents blocked an attempt to expand a smaller medical waste incinerator in Hawkins Point operated byMed-Net Inc.

But a court has yet to hear the residents' arguments.

The state Court of Special Appeals ruled Oct. 31 that the residents can sue to stop the incinerator. But Medical Waste Associates hasappealed that decision to the highest court, the Maryland Court of Appeals.

"It's unfortunate that they'll probably be burning for a year before we even get a court date to argue it," said Mary Rosso, president of the Maryland Waste Coalition, which filed the suit for theresidents.

Rosso said she's concerned that the incinerator could be fully operational for an extended period under a test permit.

But DOE spokesman Sullivan said Consumat must simulate normal operating conditions and emissions before receiving final state approval.

"They can operate continuously under the temporary permit," Sullivan said. "They can work as normal. You wouldn't expect them to do that while they are debugging. But they can."

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