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Matthews Incinerator Permit Delayed; Air Quality Meeting Set

Medical wast incinerator in Matthews, NC.

It's taken three and a half months for the owners of a medical waste incinerator in Matthews to fix problems for which it was cited in April. But finally, the issues appear to be resolved and county officials say they're hoping to reopen the permitting process for the facility. On March 30th, inspectors from Mecklenburg County's Air Quality office paid a surprise visit to the incinerator run by a company called BMWNC. They found smoke belching from the facility, a nasty odor in the air and shoddy record-keeping. All are violations of the incinerator's permit. "We've caught them with their pants down, doing exactly what citizens said they were doing," say Adam Brooks, who lives in Matthews and is part of a citizens group opposed to the incinerator. After the county cited the incinerator in April, Air Quality director Don Willard says he expected the problems to be fixed within 45 days. Instead, it's taken 100. As a result, the county put a temporary hold on BMWNC's request to renew the incinerator's permit. Willard says operations at the incinerator now appear to have improved and he expects to restart the permit process soon. BMWNC spokesman Don Nuss says the majority of the problems were fixed immediately. The only delay was purchasing automated equipment to monitor the incinerator. "I think we've shown we're willing to go above and beyond as far as any requirements Mecklenburg County Air Quality has for us," says Nuss. "We're just ready and anxious to move forward and be a good corporate citizen in Matthews, North Carolina." Many Matthews residents remain cynical of that, says Adam Brooks. "I'm not sure that everyone is confident in the ability of the county to long-term monitor this place as closely as it needs to be, given the health ramifications of where it's located," says Brooks. He and many others would prefer the incinerator be shut down, but that's not a likely option in the short term. However, state regulators are considering imposing stricter air pollution limits on medical waste incinerators as early as 2012. A public hearing on that proposal is set for September 7th at UNC-Greensboro. At issue is whether facilities - including one in Matthews - should be required to further clean up their emissions by 2012, or be allowed to wait until 2014. The EPA has already set the new limits, but the state can decide when to implement them. Environmental groups want to see compliance as soon as possible. "Two years makes a huge difference," says Sue Dayton of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. "Right now, the medical waste incinerator in Matthews is releasing extremely high levels of dioxins and furans up to 12.6 times the new EPA standards and nitrogen oxide and hydrogen chloride as well." Those pollutants are toxic, but within the current legal limit for medical waste incinerators. Mecklenburg County officials have asked the state to move up the deadline for complying with new emissions rules as they consider issuing another five-year permit to BMWNC. The company is still trying to figure out if it could comply by 2012, says BMWNC spokesman Don Nuss. "To give you an idea of the range that we've found, we have estimates from $2 million, up to $7 million to comply with the regulations," says Nuss. "So we are having to go through all that data to determine which is the best course for us to take." As air pollution regulations have become more strict, the number of medical waste incinerators in the nation has dwindled from around 2,000 ten years ago to only about 50 today. The Matthews facility incinerates body parts, tissue samples, blood, gloves and other medical waste from hospitals in four states.