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Matthews Incinerator May Be Headed For Closure

A controversial medical waste incinerator in Matthews may be headed for a change of ownership - and possibly shut down. Neighbors of the Matthews incinerator are cautious, but encouraged, to learn that after more than two decades, their wish may soon be granted. "We feel if it closes, we will have accomplished our mission," says Catherine Mitchell, of the group "Citizens for a Healthy Environment." It's the latest iteration of citizens groups that have lobbied for years to get the incinerator shut down. They complain of smoke, smells and toxic pollution. Despite citizens' concerns, air quality regulators recently renewed the incinerator's operating permit for another five years. But the winds seem to be changing. Healthcare Waste Solutions, which owns the Matthews incinerator, is in the final stages of a $245 million merger with a much larger rival - Stericycle. But Stericycle doesn't want the Matthews incinerator and won't go through with the merger unless Healthcare Waste Solutions gets rid of it. In a letter to Mecklenburg County Air Quality Regulators, Healthcare Waste Solutions' CEO says the "most prudent course" may be to shut down the incinerator and attempt to sell it. HWS Executive Don Nuss emphasizes that's just one option. "One option is to find a pedigreed buyer and the other option maybe be to run the facility as normal," says Nuss. "Until the merger, we will continue to operate as normal and we are operating now." The merger is expected to occur by the end of this month. Before then, Nuss says ownership of the incinerator will be transferred to a private holding company that will be run by the two top executives of Healthcare Waste Solutions. The incinerator may continue to burn medical waste, but Nuss says long-term plans aren't final. Stericycle hasn't said why it's refusing to take the incinerator in the merger, but one likely reason is stricter air quality regulations such incinerators will soon have to meet. Nuss says compliance at the Matthews facility will mean up to five million dollars in upgrades. Mecklenburg County has received special permission to impose a 2012 deadline for those changes, which Nuss calls "extremely aggressive." The federal deadline is two years later - 2014.