NORTH SALT LAKE — The medical waste disposal company that has been blasted by a growing group of clean air advocates wants to move out of south Davis County.
But some opponents say changing counties isn't the answer.
Stericycle, which has been a target of criticism since it reportedly violated air pollution limits last May, announced Friday it is attempting to purchase land in Tooele County in order to move its incinerator. The company denies it exceeded limits set by the state's Division of Air Quality but has faced outcry from grassroots activist groups, some medical professionals, and the Salt Lake County Council, even though the incinerator is in neighboring Davis County.
The company is finalizing a purchasing agreement on a location that would be remote and is larger than its current locale and is gearing up to seek the necessary permits when the legislative session opens next week, according to Selin Hoboy, Stericycle vice president of legislative and regulatory affairs.
But for Alicia Connell, a mother who became concerned about the notice of violation last May and has since become the face of Communities for Clean Air, moving Stericycle's incinerator doesn't solve the problem.
"As far as I'm concerned, it's not good enough," Connell said Friday. "It's still in our airshed, it's still a danger to people, and there are better technologies with zero emissions. … We're not interested in giving our problems to somebody else."
The concern, Connell said, is with the incineration process that Stericycle uses to burn hazardous medical waste, potentially releasing dangerous particles into the air. Connell lived near Stericycle until nearly two years ago when she moved to care for a family member. She continues to run a produce co-op near the plant.
Protests led by Communities for Clean Air (which Connell points out is just a Facebook group of nearly 1,500 concerned citizens and not a formal organization) have called on medical facilities to stop working with Stericycle and have attracted attention of activists like Erin Brockovich.
As the only medical waste incinerator in the West, Stericycle's clients include hospitals, mortuaries, veterinary clinics, ambulance companies, dialysis centers and tattoo parlors.
Stericycle contends that some medical waste — chemotherapy drugs, pathological waste, waste pharmaceuticals — simply requires incineration.
"We try to ensure that only that which really needs to be incinerated, those special waste types, are what's incinerated," Hoboy said. "This need is especially great in Utah because we have large cancer centers and other research facilities and we have not seen other technologies to be able to handle these types of medical waste on a larger scale."
If the move goes according to plan, Stericycle's Tooele operation will integrate state-of-the art disposal processes and be subject to heightened standards specific to medical waste incinerators that were outlined by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2009. The new standards go into effect this year, but requirements for existing facilities are less stringent.
Stericycle's employees have been briefed on the company's plans to move and some may choose to move with it, Hoboy said. There's no set timeline yet as the company awaits legislative approval and the permits it needs.
In the meantime, Hoboy affirms Stericycle is compliant with the state's standards and continues to operate legally near the Davis County/Salt Lake County border.
"We are a very small emitter. Even if we leave, it's not going to solve Salt Lake City's air issues," Hoboy said. "Those who are concerned about moving the problem to a different location really need to consider we're not going to be next to neighbors, and we do think that having a new location is a better option for all of us involved."