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ANCHORAGE - Alaska's largest medical waste incinerator is the target of a state investigation over allegations that it has been operating illegally for more than three years.
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation this spring cited Entech Incineration for not having and not applying for an air-quality permit to run its furnace in Anchorage.
Because the plant had the capacity to emit 16.8 tons of hydrogen chloride per year, more than the 10-ton limit, Entech should have applied in December 1997 for the permit, which requires stringent pollution controls and monitoring, the DEC notice of violation said.
The DEC also said Entech may have overloaded its furnaces with medical waste, such as plastic tubing, needles, culture dishes and intravenous bags. The agency has requested company burn records.
Entech has done nothing wrong, said owner Tom E. Boling, a former health care administrator who bought the business from Arctic Slope Regional Corp. in 1999.
Boling said he extensively researched the plant's operations before investing in the company. DEC regulators told him he did not need a state permit because the facility was not considered a large enough pollution source, he said. If it turns out a permit is needed, it's a paperwork glitch and not a deliberate infraction, Boling said.
"We try to run a clean operation. If the municipality of Anchorage or the DEC tell us to do something, we do it," he said.
A May 3 letter to the DEC from Entech said company burn records indicate there was only one instance in which the incinerator may have exceeded the limit of 300 pounds per hour.
Before Boling bought the business, the former owners ran afoul of state pollution regulations and were fined $45,000 in 1994.
Since Boling took over, things have improved, according to municipal, state and federal officials.
"From the standpoint of whether this is creating an air pollution nuisance, our inspection didn't indicate that," said John Pavitt, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency inspector who toured Entech in February.
Entech's main competitor, Safety Waste Incineration of Knik, is convinced the South Anchorage facility is poisoning the environment not only with hazardous chemicals but with airborne pathogens.
Nancy Oliver, who owns Safety Waste with her husband, said Entech's equipment is outdated and produces dangerous emissions. The incinerator's secondary chamber should hold the gases for at least two seconds before releasing them, as her incinerator does, Oliver said.
Oliver is not an engineer and does not know what she's talking about, Boling said. She's angry that she lost a contract with the Alaska Native Medical Center because Entech underbid her, he said.
Entech plans to stop burning most hospital refuse in August when tougher and more costly federal rules on medical waste incinerators take effect. The company will switch to steaming waste in an autoclave, Boling said. Entech told the state it will continue to burn pathological waste, such as body parts and pet carcasses, that falls under less stringent rules.