Eight out of 10 incinerators operated by healthcare facilities ultimately could close because of final regulations for medical-waste incinerators expected to be published in August by the Environmental Protection Agency.
A draft of the regulations, released this month, would impose performance standards and emission guidelines by incinerator location, amount of waste burned and pollutants produced. Hospitals also would have to develop formal plans for waste separation and reduction.
The regulations, still subject to change, have been in the works for 2 1/2 years.
In a significant change from earlier proposals, low-volume rural incinerators would be allowed to operate under easier standards. That's an acknowledgement by the EPA that there might not be adequate alternatives for waste disposal in such areas. Under the proposed rule, rural areas are defined as those more than 50 miles from the border of a statistically defined metropolitan area.
Incinerator operators in urban areas, however, would have to install pollution-control gear, such as scrubbers, under heightened standards.
Overall, operators of 50% to 80% of medical-waste incinerators probably would close them rather than invest the money and effort needed to comply, says Rick Copland, an EPA environmental engineer.
Healthcare facilities, including hospitals, nursing homes and long-term-care facilities, operate 2,400 incinerators throughout the country and burn 846,000 tons of waste a year, according to EPA estimates.
Earlier versions of the rules drew significant criticism from the American Hospital Association. But an AHA spokeswoman says the AHA is reviewing the latest draft and would not comment until it is final.
The regulations are to become effective six months after publication in the Federal Register. The agency currently expects to publish the rules by Aug. 15.
After that date, new incinerators would have to comply with the standards before commencing operations; while existing incinerators would have three years to five years to conform.
Under a court-supervised consent decree, the EPA was to finish the rulemaking process by late last week, but an agency request for a three-week extension was expected to be granted, Copland says.