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New pollution standards rekindle Matthews incinerator debate

Mecklenburg County's only medical waste incinerator is seeking another five year permit to continue operation. Residents near the facility in Matthews have spent 20 years trying to get it shut down. Now they hope new federal air quality guidelines will help them succeed. When she bought her home in Matthews 10 years ago, Catherine Mitchell had no idea what went on inside a metal warehouse five miles away. Then she started talking to people who lived closer to it. "They will tell you that on somedays it's absolutely horrible, " says Mitchell. "From odors, to ash. Burning eyes. Burning noses." Turns out Mitchell had a medical incinerator nearby. It's been there since 1985 and for just as long Matthews residents have been trying to get closed. But Mecklenburg County Air Quality Director Don Willard says the amount of mercury, cadmium, dioxin and other chemicals coming from the incinerator's smoke stacks are within safe levels set by the state and federal government. "They are operating in compliance," says Willard. "We've been out there more frequently than we have in the past because of all the attention it's gotten. It is an old facility that has had a checkered past in regards to compliance and operations. But the most recent owners have operated it as well as - well better than anyone else has." The plant is operated by a company called BMWNC, which merged with Ohio-based Healthcare Waste Solutions in 2006. Since then, it's had only one air quality violation when it failed to file a report on time last year. The catch is the EPA recently passed new, stricter pollution guidelines that go into effect in 2014. Healthcare Waste Solutions executive Don Nuss admits the incinerator cannot meet the new standards "But we are working aggressively towards meeting those regulations," says Nuss. "We're currently interviewing engineering consultants in the area trying to find the best fit for our facility. This is a long process." Nuss says the incinerator will meet the new requirements by the 2014 deadline. Meanwhile its five-year operating permit has expired. Matthews Town officials and residents like Adam Brooks say the incinerator should be required to meet the new pollution standards earlier in order to renew its permit. "There's no way this facility would get built there again," says Brooks. "If it were to come up right now, Matthews is so different it wouldn't get built. But if it's going to exist, let's not just give them a blank check. Let's make sure they're doing the right thing and being good neighbors." Mecklenburg Air Quality Director Don Willard that says he looked into the possibility of requiring BMWNC to comply with the new federal standards earlier than 2014, but a county attorney said that wasn't legal. Willard did extend the public comment period for the permit by several weeks, though. That deadline is now April 1.