NORTH SALT LAKE — Erin Brockovitch, an anti-pollution crusader who inspired a movie of the same name, told a packed town hall of residents she supports their fight against a medical waste incinerator, and she will be with them every step of the way.
And with them she walked, joining the Saturday afternoon march that ended at Stericycle, the West's only remaining facility of its kind — an obscure nearly unmarked building flying the American flag amidst neighborhoods, an elementary school and churches.
"I am here today to be your support, to be your cheerleader, to tell you positively without a shadow of a doubt you are on the right track, you are doing the right thing," she said. "...We are going to be with you during this. We are here to help you out and and we will fight as as hard as we can to get that company to go away so that you can have a better future."
Brockovitch and her team of environmental investigators and attorneys have joined a renewed effort to either evict or eliminate Stericycle in momentum stoked by this summer's revelation that the company significantly violated pollution limits set by the state.
I am here today to be your support, to be your cheerleader, to tell you positively without a shadow of a doubt you are on the right track, you are doing the right thing.
–Erin Brockovich, environmental activist
Both Stericycle and the state Division of Air Quality remain in negotiations over a settlement of the case, which could result in fines in the millions of dollars because of the significance of the violation.
The investigation by state regulators who pored through daily logs documenting the amount of waste incinerated by the facility also revealed the records were deliberately falsified to misrepresent "routine" operations. That component of the case has been turned over to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a criminal investigation.
Yet as negotiations continue and probes unfurl, residents have grown impatient and frustrated, sentiments which in turn have fueled an angry activism aimed at North Salt Lake elected officials, the state Division of Air Quality and Gov. Gary Herbert.
Brockovitch, whose life story was portrayed by actress Julia Roberts in a 2000 film, earned her fame by doggedly taking on a power company in a groundwater contamination case in which dozens of people in Hinckley, Calif., were poisoned. She was an unemployed single mother who, as a legal assistant, helped secure a record $333 million settlement against the company.
During Saturday's community meeting attended by about 300 people, Brockovitch said it takes the collective voice of a community to expose environmental injustice and slam the door on industries that won't play by the rules.
"Lining your pocketbooks over the health of children and families is not the way to do business anymore," she said. "This company has no business burning biohazardous waste on top of communites and children," she said. "No business."
Stericycle could not be reached for comment.
Across the country, Brockovitch noted there are representatives from about 5,000 communities dealing with some sort of pollution who have reached out to her, wanting to know strategies to deal with their own unique problem.
It's normally, a "mom" or several "moms" who initially act out of concern, do a little investigating on their own, and then want to share their story to mount pressure, she said.
"The seed that starts all these problems — it begins with deception," she said. "A company that is not doing the right thing."
While it is tempting to place trust in state and federal regulators to take care of the best interests of the community and public health, she said that trust is not enough.
"There's a false sense of security that agency is looking after you," she said. "More often than not, they are absent. They are overburdened, understaffed and underfunded."
Bountiful residents Bill and Sharon Forbes were among the south Davis County residents who turned out for the event, sporting anti-Stericycle signs and demanding change.
They may live up the hill from the North Salt Lake Foxboro subdivision adjacent to Stericycle, but said the issue transcends geographic and political boundaries.
"We think we need to be persistent because if we are not, this issue will just go away," he said.