SALT LAKE CITY — Residents and activists including physicians have stepped up their campaign against Stericycle, urging clients of the medical waste incinerator like local hospitals and clinics to take their business elsewhere.
"It is clear there are better alternatives," said Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.
The group, joined by Communities for Clean Air, held a news conference Thursday to showcase those "alternatives," including a company that disposes of medical waste for a Blanding hospital on-site by using a blend of biodegradable disinfectants that are approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Another company that has clients in neighboring Colorado zaps the waste with ozone gas to sterilize it, reducing it in volume by 90 percent. The ozone then decays to oxygen, resulting in zero emissions.
Alicia Connell with Communities for Clean Air and a neighbor of Stericycle's said the options make plain the next steps that need to be taken.
"This removes the barrier to correct the mistake that happened 25 years ago when this incinerator was approved," Connell said.
Moench said Stericycle's clients will be receiving a letter asking them to immediately find a waste management alternative that does not pose a public health risk and make the change by Jan. 1.
"It is long overdue that medical facilities discontinue the practice of having their waste incinerated," the letter reads. "The residents nearby are determined to protect their children, families and neighborhood, and will do whatever it takes to close the incinerator."
The doctors' group said it's ethically wrong for hospitals to send their waste to the plant, which is the only remaining medical waste incineration facility in the West, serving eight states.
"The first obligation of health care providers is 'do no harm,'" the letter states. "It is ironic but indefensible then for hospitals, clinics and care centers to dispose of waste in a manner that harms community health."
Pressure on air quality regulators, the business, and state and North Salt Lake officials has been ratcheting up since late May, when the state Division of Air Quality slapped Stericycle with a notice of violation contending it significantly violated the air pollution threshold set by its permit.
Among the pollutants in Stericycle's emissions are dioxins, which are a likely cancer-causing agent, according to the EPA.
In addition, the state asserts the company manipulated its logs to misrepresent the volume of material it was incinerating. Stericycle is contesting the complaint, which ultimately may land the case in district court.
"Even the best-managed incinerator would represent a serious risk to public health in our community, but this facility is anything but the best-managed," the letter said, pointing to the violation.
Moench said the groups plan to augment the letter writing campaign with phone calls from residents and revisit the issue with Stericycle's clients every few weeks.
The groups also slammed the preliminary conclusions of the first phase of a three-pronged study by the health department denoting levels of dioxin in soil samples that presented low health risks to the public. The samples were taken in 2003 from a site near Stericycle and elsewhere in the Rocky Mountain region and provided a baseline for the health department to use in additional sampling that is done.
But Moench and others say the study is completely inadequate and is taking the wrong approach — seeking results first and closure later.
"It should not be in operation until it can be proven it is safe," Moench said. "If the priority is to protect lives, the burning should have stopped months ago."