Two of Maryland’s largest health systems are walking different lines with a troubled South Baltimore medical waste incinerator: Johns Hopkins University indicated Wednesday that it will divert nearly all of its medical waste from the facility, while MedStar Health insisted they have no other choice.

The statements from the two institutions come just a week after Maryland again filed a lawsuit against the Hawkins Point incinerator, operated by Curtis Bay Energy, over repeated air pollution infractions, and months after the state announced a historic, $1.75 million penalty against the facility over a litany of other environmental violations. Environmental advocates have escalated demands for local hospitals to cut ties with the incinerator.

“We were upset and and disappointed to learn about the actions of the Curtis Bay Energy staff that led to the original guilty plea in October, and equally alarmed by the most recent lawsuit,” Bob McLean, vice president of facilities for Johns Hopkins, told City Council members at a hearing Wednesday on the incinerator. “This is certainly not what we expect from companies we do business with.”

While Hopkins officials committed to taking immediate steps to phase out their reliance on the incinerator, an environmental representative from the largest hospital systems in Maryland, MedStar Health, told the council that they believe operators of the incinerator have responded appropriately to recent violations.

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“After careful consideration,” said Rachel DeMunda, MedStar’s director of environmental health, safety and sustainability, the health system plans to move forward with incineration at the facility, arguing that the method remains a necessary step for hospitals to eliminate harmful waste.

As the largest medical waste incinerator in the country, Curtis Bay Energy disposes of biohazardous material from around the country and from Canada. Maryland regulators are seeking to fine the facility for repeated emissions violations — including exceeding limits for carbon monoxide and hydrogen chloride, a toxic pollutant — while an investigation unveiled last year by the attorney general’s office found that the incinerator had failed to adequately burn biohazardous waste before transporting to landfills.

Since Maryland officials announced that settlement last October, Curtis Bay residents have called on state regulators to shut down the incinerator and urged local hospitals to take immediate steps to find other ways to dispose of their medical waste. Community advocates have also taken an active role in monitoring the incinerator, deploying cameras and alerting state regulators to dark smoke coming from the facility.

Christopher Heaney, a professor of environmental health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, has assisted the community with monitoring. In a presentation to council members Wednesday, Heaney noted that the community has tracked dark smoke coming from the incinerator in more than two dozen instances over 21 days so far this year. The dark smoke has persisted for an average of more than 40 minutes and lasted as long as two hours at a time.

Meleny Thomas, executive director of the South Baltimore Community Land Trust, explained to council members that their body approved legislation in 1997 allowing the incinerator to import waste from up to 250 miles away — a step the city only took after operators of the incinerator were caught illegally burning out-of-state waste three years earlier.

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“It is now 2024, and we are back here again, fighting for the same issue,” said Thomas.

Even with one major local health system pledging to cut its reliance on the incinerator, today Curtis Bay Energy gets most of its business from out of state, according to tracking by the South Baltimore Community Land Trust. More than three-quarters of the waste taken in by the incinerator comes from outside of Maryland, according to data obtained by the environmental group through a public records request.

Representatives for Curtis Bay Energy were not present for Wednesday’s hearing, but the company submitted written testimony stating that it has been in regular contact with Maryland Department of the Environment and has already remediated most of the issues that prompted the most recent state lawsuit. A series of equipment challenges in late 2023 led to “a number of cascading issues,” including emissions violations, which the company has since mostly resolved, the letter states.

When it comes to the recent “smoke events,” though, Curtis Bay Energy is still figuring out how to fix the problem. The company has made new investments to its equipment to prevent similar events and brought in the help of outside firms, the letter states, but the smoke emissions “have proven more difficult to fully eliminate.”

According to McLean, the Johns Hopkins facilities official, the vast majority of the medical waste the institution sends to the incinerator comes from its university side, rather than its hospital system. While McLean said Hopkins has cut its medical waste stream by 20% since 2008, more than one-quarter of medical waste across the institution currently goes to the Hawkins Point incinerator. Johns Hopkins is working with its vendors and facilities teams to divert all but 1% of its medical waste from the incinerator to other disposal methods, a change McLean said he is confident the institution can accomplish within the next two months.

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DeMunda of MedStar, on the other hand, said a small fraction of “truly infectious” medical waste must be disposed of either through incineration or a separate sterilization method, both of which have environmental side effects. While MedStar is working to reduce the share of its total waste stream that is made up of infectious medical waste, DeMunda argued that there are logistical and environmental benefits to having the incinerator nearby.

Due to cost and access, there aren’t currently “greener” medical waste disposal options for hospitals, DeMunda said. “Despite innovations in disposal technologies, there is no scalable, global green solution at present.”

MedStar operates seven hospitals in Maryland and three in Baltimore — Union Memorial Hospital, Good Samaritan Hospital and Harbor Hospital — and DeMunda said the health system had only recently contracted with Curtis Bay Energy for disposal of materials like medical and pharmaceutical waste.

Other local hospitals, including the University of Maryland Medical Center, did not accept invitations to attend Wednesday’s hearing. A letter of written testimony submitted by the University of Maryland Medical Center makes no commitments to divert waste from the Hawkins Point incinerator, but notes the system has substantially reduced its volume of medical waste in recent decades.

Carlos Sanchez-Gonzalez, left, and Greg Sawtell of Free Your Voice, delivered a formal notice to workers at the Curtis Bay Energy medical waste incinerator in Hawkins Point on Wednesday detailing the public health harms of the facility where they work. (Kirk McKoy/The Baltimore Banner)

Curtis Bay Energy operates in a heavily industrialized area of South Baltimore, across Curtis Creek from the Curtis Bay neighborhood. Environmental advocates and residents of the neighborhood packed the City Council chambers for the hearing to demand action from hospitals contracted with the incinerator.

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Greg Sawtell, an environmental organizer with the land trust, told council members that the divergent statements from Johns Hopkins and MedStar officials shows that “there are choices to be made” about use of the medical waste incinerator, calling on other hospitals to end contracts with the facility.

“It’s a choice for our hospitals because others haven’t spoken,” he said. “Are you going to take the side of saying it’s okay what you saw today with the black smoke and the ongoing pollution? Or are you going to say that we can do better and we will do better?”

David Jones, a longtime resident of the South Baltimore neighborhood, praised Hopkins for the steps it is taking but said the institution’s commitment represents “a drop in the bucket” compared to the total problem.

To Jones, MedStar’s decision to keep sending waste to the incinerator sends the message that his community doesn’t matter, that “MedStar Health — bottom line — is more important than your community and the surrounding communities’ public health and safety.”

Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government.

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