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Hawkins Pt. incinerator bill disputed 3 area councilmen back bid to allow waste from out of state; Experts see other options; New technologies available to process hospital refuse


All three 6th District councilmen say they have little choice but to back a controversial City Council bill that could double the amount of waste burned at Maryland's largest medical waste incinerator.

But are they telling residents of Brooklyn and Curtis Bay -- where the bill to boost burning at the Hawkins Point facility faces its stiffest opposition -- the whole story? Or are they presenting residents with a false choice?

"No," insists Councilman Edward L. Reisinger. "If we don't go forward with this, you're going to have a lot of hospitals that will have to burn medical waste and really pollute the air," he said.

"They can either burn this stuff in a facility where they know what they're doing," Councilman Melvin L. Stukes recently told Curtis Bay residents, "or the hospitals will have to do it themselves."

The other 6th District councilman is Dr. Norman A. Handy Sr. All are Democrats.

The councilmen's argument goes like this: Residents can support the bill and help strengthen a struggling local company, Phoenix Services Inc., that runs an environmentally sound facility in South Baltimore. Or they can oppose it and watch the incinerator company continue to suffer, increase its rates, lose customers and maybe close.

In that case, the councilmen say, many city hospitals would have no choice but to burn their own medical waste in small on-site incinerators, which together would create more air pollution than the large facility.

Some residents say they have been convinced that the bill makes hard-headed sense. But interviews with incinerator experts, government officials and hospital administrators suggest that the councilmen's arguments are at best incomplete.

Yes, these experts say, the massive medical waste incinerator at Hawkins Point is well managed and meets environmental

standards. But if the bill doesn't pass, they say, local hospitals would have far more options than the councilmen let on.

Alternative technologies to incineration that were in development when the incinerator was built seven years ago are now in full flower. In an unmistakable trend, a small but growing number of hospitals that dispose of their own waste have given up on their incinerators and switched.

"I was Mister Incinerator. I thought that was the only way to go," says Bruce Patterson, director of facilities management at Salisbury's Peninsula Regional Medical Center. But three years ago, the hospital gave up its incinerator in favor of a so-called "microwave" unit.

"It's simple -- no water emissions, no air emissions," he says.

To be sure, the various alternatives -- which can employ microwaves, shredders, even pathogen-eating enzymes -- are hardly panaceas. Some are relatively new and untested; others have difficulties processing human body parts or radioactive waste.

But hospitals around the country have found the alternatives such as the microwave, which is used at nearly 50 institutions nationwide, to be effective in disposing of their infectious medical waste. And the microwave does it without the troublesome air emissions that have led to criticism of incinerators, experts and hospital administrators say.

Ironically, many backers of alternative technologies once sang the praises of regional medical waste incinerators such as the one in Hawkins Point. In the late 1980s, when the Baltimore facility was being built, environmentalists argued that such incinerators were needed because they burned waste more cleanly and efficiently than the smaller incinerators employed by individual hospitals.

The Environmental Protection Agency now maintains, in the face of fierce opposition from industry, that medical waste incinerators are a "significant" source of dioxin in the environment. The EPA considers dioxin a "probable" human carcinogen, on the basis of experiments with laboratory animals. The Hawkins Point facility sends dioxin into the air, but at an

amount well under the government standard.

"We can't say one or the other technology is better," says Rick Copland, an engineer for the EPA. "What I can say is that the alternative technologies are competitive with incineration."

The bill in question would not alter the capacity of the incinerator, which is 150 tons a day. But it would roll back city statutes that had limited the incinerator to receiving medical waste from only a handful of Maryland counties.

Under the bill, the Hawkins Point facility could receive and burn waste from anywhere in the country. Phoenix officials, who claim they are losing money, say they need the bill to double their current business from about 65 to 125 tons daily, and turn a profit.

If the bill passes, Phoenix promises to spend $50,000 a year for the next 18 years on recreation, social events, and environmental improvements in the district.

Environmentalists and neighborhood leaders who oppose the bill say they plan to seize on the alternative technologies issue when two City Council committees hold a hearing on the bill Feb. 5. Some of these opponents have already traveled to Salisbury to see Peninsula Regional's microwave.

"I thought it was excellent," says Doris McGuigan, a Brooklyn activist who made the trip.

Privately, the bill's opponents acknowledge being frustrated that Phoenix Services Inc., the owner of the incinerator, has given them so little to criticize.

Emissions are down by half since Phoenix Services took over from Medical Waste Associates in 1994. Even Dolores Barnes, the president of a Brooklyn citizens group and a chief critic of the City Council bill, conceded after a recent visit to the facility that she was "impressed" by Phoenix.

But while Phoenix has 27 hospital clients, some hospital administrators who have considered sending waste to Hawkins Point say they preferred to handle it themselves. Several have gone to alternative technologies.

In many cases, the chief appeal of the new technologies has been cost. At Union Memorial Hospital, officials considered all manner of waste disposal before installing a "Sani-pac", which uses heat and a vacuum to turn medical waste into material that resembles freeze-dried coffee.

Even with the cost of shipping the processed waste to a landfill, Union Memorial saves 30 cents a pound by using the Sani-pac instead of the medical waste incinerator, and doesn't have to worry about air emissions, says facilities director Jim Wood. Other hospitals have signed up with Phoenix and "regret it, because of the cost," he says. "And now they're having a hell of a time trying to get out of it."

Phoenix officials strongly deny that. They also say that one important reason they need more business is so they can operate more efficiently and provide longtime customers with a lower cost.

But Helix Health, of which Union Memorial is a member, demonstrates the flexibility hospitals have and the competitive pressures the incinerator faces. Three of Helix's five Baltimore-area members are incinerator clients, and Helix vice president for operations Steven S. Cohen says he'd like to see the incinerator become more profitable. After all, local hospitals put up much of the money to build the Hawkins Point facility in the late 1980s.

"We certainly would not like to waste what went into that development," he says.

But Cohen also says he is pleased with the savings Union Memorial has achieved with its Sani-pac. He praises a new alternative technology, the Antaeus system, which is being tested at Franklin Square, another Helix hospital. And he expresses some unease about incineration: "If I were living near one, I'd wonder about that smokestack," he says.

In Salisbury, Patterson says he considered shipping to Hawkins Point before buying a microwave in 1993. The hospital had had an incinerator before, but the microwave proved to be more reliable -- it is in service more than 90 percent of the time -- at about one-third the cost of using the Baltimore incinerator.

"In Baltimore, I don't know that they could ever get their price down to where they could compete with the microwave on-site cost," Patterson says.

Pub Date: 12/30/96

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