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Inside MeckCo's only medical waste incinerator

Medical wast incinerator in Matthews, NC.

Last week, Mecklenburn County Air Quality officials issued a 'notice of violation' to a medical waste incinerator in Matthews. It's the only such facility in the county and it's been a sore spot for residents since opening in 1988. But the controversy has rekindled because the incinerator needs a new five-year permit. WFAE's Julie Rose takes a look inside. The incinerator isn't far from the bustling intersection of I-485 and Independence Boulevard in Matthews. But it's kind of hard to find. There's no sign pointing the way from the main road and the plain metal warehouse is surprisingly small - about 60 x 120 feet. "In terms of incineration facilities it is a small facility," says Tom Hulme, the general manager of the incinerator. It collects medical waste from hospitals and doctors offices all over the Carolinas, Virginia and even New York. Stuff like amputated body parts, blood, tissue samples, gloves and masks. But it's hardly the set of a horror movie. "It's sealed and we do not want to expose people to opening boxes and sorting through who knows what," says Hulme. "It's brought here for one purpose and that purpose is disposal." Workers load sealed boxes onto a short conveyor belt that feeds into the incinerator. It rages 24 hours a day. A hydraulic ram pushes material in to the primary combustion chamber, running at 1,400 degrees. We weave through the stacks of cardboard boxes to reach the backside of the incinerator. Hulme's wearing short sleeves. He says there's no for protective clothing. There's a vague smell of rotting meat, but the breeze makes it barely noticeable. Hulme says it takes two and a half hours for the waste to be completely incinerated. Water cools the ash down and keeps it from flying off. Wires and other metal remnants that withstood the incinerator's 1,900 degree heat poke up from the muddy mess. Hulme says it's now as harmless as the dirt in your garden. Soon it will be hauled off to the landfill. Meanwhile the exhaust from inside the incinerator passes through a series of filters that work like the bag in a vacuum cleaner to catch any airborne articles. "You can see the clear, Carolina blue sky right through the exhaust," says Hulme, pointing to the smokestack. Squint and you can just see the slight haze of hydrogen chloride, chromium and dioxin and other toxins wisping out. As long as the incinerator is functioning properly, state and county air quality officials says the emissions do not pose an increased health risk. And they say the incinerator is actually a much smaller polluter than many other foundries and chemical companies here in Mecklenburg County. Still, people who live nearby say the smoke and smell is sometimes so bad they can't go outside. "It's terrible," says Barbara Rey who lives half a mile from the incinerator. "I mean, depending on when the wind is blowing, I mean it's obvious that they're burning body parts." Despite neighborhood complaints, county inspectors have rarely been able to verify the claims. In 2006, the incinerator was bought by an Ohio company called Healthcare Waste Solutions. Since then it's had a clean record and the company's been touting that as it tries to renew its operating permit. But the winds have shifted: Twice in the last month, Mecklenburg County Air Quality Director Don Willard says his investigators have made an unannounced visit to the incinerator and seen smoke coming out of the stacks. "That's not supposed to happen," says Willard. Healthcare Waste Solutions was issued a "notice of violation." Willard says the company has been cooperative in fixing the problems. But it will have to pay a fine and now its track record is tarnished. "Certainly that plays into renewing a permit," says Willard. "To me the most critical thing is operating in compliance, and if you can't assure us you can do that, then that's cause to not renew the permit." During the recent public comment period for the incinerator permit, Willard says he received an unusually large number of letters and emails asking for it to be shut down. And that was before anyone knew of the air quality violation issued last week. Judy Drake's been upset since the day the incinerator was built. You can see it from her front yard about a quarter of a mile away. "In the beginning, you just can't believe how bad it was," she recalls. "We had to quit hanging clothes outside - you can't hang anything outside. It got black stuff on it that would be specks like a paint brush you know? You couldn't wash it out by rewashing the clothes." Since about 2000, Drake admits things have been better. That's when federal regulations required medical waste incinerators to install scrubbers and filters that would prevent ash from flying out of the smokestack. There were more than 2,000 such incinerators at the time, but many shut down rather than comply with the new laws. Today there are only 57 in the entire country. The town of Matthews has grown up around its incinerator. Billie McChesney lives in a newer housing development on the other side of I-485. She had no idea the incinerator existed until I mentioned it. "I really haven't noticed anything," says McChesney. "There's always different smells, but nothing that's really nasty or anything that I would wonder why it was." Environmental groups are canvassing her neighborhood to drum up opposition to the incinerator. The mayors of Matthews and nearby Stallings have added their voices, calling on county officials to make the incinerator comply with new federal emission standards before the 2014 deadline. Mecklenburg County Air Quality Director Don Willard hopes to see the incinerator comply as early as 2012, but that would require state approval. He's asked for it, and the County Commission supports his request. Judy Drake wishes it was the last resort. "What I'd really like to see after 25 years of this? I'd like to see them gone," says Drake. "I'd like to seem the disposing of it with these new systems that do not put out smoke and ash." Those new systems include sterilizing with steam and pressure and they can deal with some of what the Matthews incinerator is currently burning. In fact, Healthcare Waste Solutions has one of those alternative facilities in Gastonia. But the guy who runs the incinerator, Tom Hulme, says most of the waste still comes to him because hospitals and doctors insist on it. Incineration, they believe, will protect them from liability.