EPA Curbs Medical Incinerator Pollution

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Environmental Protection Agency moved yesterday to curb pollution released by medical waste incinerators, ending an 11-year battle over how to best regulate the emissions.

Environmentalists hailed the move as an important precedent for controlling toxic releases into the air, saying EPA based its calculations on the availability of technologies to significantly clean up incinerator pollution. The facilities can install fabric filters to trap toxic particles or scrubbers to capture gaseous releases.

"This is the first time I've ever seen them do an air toxic rule right," said Jim Pew, a lawyer at Earthjustice, a Calif.-based environmental advocacy group that sued the agency over its initial proposal for regulating the incinerators more than a decade ago. "It's a big cut in emissions."

EPA spokesman Dale Kemery said no one from the agency was available to comment on the rule, which was technically promulgated Nov. 14 but published in the Federal Register yesterday. It is subject to public comment for 75 days before being finalized.

Medical incinerators account for a fraction of the country's air pollution, but the toxic emissions from some of the facilities can have a significant local effect on public health. The Curtis Bay Energy incinerator -- which serves the Baltimore area and the mid-Atlantic region -- is one of the nation's major such facilities and would not be in compliance with the new standards. The company could not be reached for comment yesterday.

When EPA first issued standards, in 1997, for medical incinerators -- which burn biological waste, needles, plastic gloves and batteries, among other items -- it estimated that there were 2,400 incinerators nationwide burning about 830,000 tons of medical waste per year. Most hospitals that were burning their own waste at the time decided to ship the waste to larger incinerators. Now, EPA estimates that 57 medical incinerators remain, burning 146,000 tons annually.

EPA estimates that the proposed rule would cut the amount of air pollution from medical incinerators by 468,000 pounds to 1,520,000 pounds per year, though it did not provide an estimate of current emissions. Mercury emissions, which cause neurological damage in children, would drop by 637 to 682 pounds annually, and cancer-causing dioxin emissions would drop by about 40 grams.

According to an agency fact sheet, "The proposed emission limits would require improvements in performance for all of the 57 currently operating" medical incinerators. It will cost these facilities $21.1 million a year to comply with the new standards, though they could use alternative disposal methods to meet the rules at half the cost, the agency said.

The rules represent a significant change from the EPA's 1997 proposal, which Earthjustice successfully challenged in court on behalf of the Sierra Club. In almost every instance, the agency has reduced the amount of allowable pollutants by at least a factor of 10: Acceptable hydrogen chloride levels will drop from 15 parts per million in the atmosphere to 0.75 per million.

"This is really remarkable," Pew said.

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