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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah House of Representatives unanimously signed off on a resolution that helps pave the way for Stericycle's planned westward move into Tooele County from North Salt Lake — a move the company hopes will help quiet its critics.
Lawmakers voted 73-0 on HJR6, sponsored by Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, which is one step in a process that is required before Stericycle can begin to put in motion its plans for an eventual move.
Hughes told his colleagues that Tooele County represents a "great solution" to the escalating angst over Stericycle's proximity to a suburban neighborhood and elementary school.
"Stericycle arrived at its current location in 1988, built their facility in a remote part of North Salt Lake," he said. "They enjoyed some anonymity in that spot until we saw some residents move close by."
The medical waste incineration facility — one of 57 commercial facilities of its kind left in the country — has been targeted by community activists, clean air advocates and national figures such as Erin Brockovich after news hit that it was accused of violating pollution limits set by its permit.
A notice of violation issued in May by the Utah Division of Air Quality alleged the company failed a stack test in December 2011. After repeated and failed negotiations among regulators and Stericycle officials, the case has been bumped up for review by an administrative law judge, who is expected to rule if the allegations have merit and, if so, what penalties may be attached. Company officials say it is the first violation they have had at the plant.
In a separate review, the Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a criminal probe based on allegations the company manipulated its operational logs to misrepresent the volume of the material it handled during an inspection of the paperwork.
Hughes stressed to his colleagues that endorsing the resolution does not mean lawmakers are issuing a license to Stericycle to operate in Tooele County. The company must still meet new permitting requirements by a multitude of agencies, include the state and the county, a process that includes public hearings and a chance for residents to learn more.
Lawmakers who represent that area of the state spoke in favor of allowing Stericycle to pursue its Tooele County move, based on information they had compiled.
"This is nonhazardous waste," said Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville. "This is not radioactive waste. This does not come even close to approaching the nerve gas bombs that were incinerated in Rush Valley over the years."
Nelson added that Stericycle performs an important business service that is a critical part of a modern-day health care system.
"This is medical waste that we create when we go to the doctors’s office. We have world-class medical facilities in this valley. They must have a way to dispose of their medical waste," he said.
Critics of Stericycle, including HEAL Utah and Utah Physicians for Healthy Environment, contend the company plays fast and reckless with regulators and emits a veritable cocktail of toxins that include dioxin and furans, which are cancer-causing agents.
Nelson said he has listened to those critics and their claims of Stericycle emissions linked to increased incidences of cancer in the Davis County, and said he sees no evidence of a causal connection.
"I have not heard of any illness or any disease that can be traced directly to the Stericycle process, only allegations," Nelson said.
Rep. Doug Sagers, R-Tooele, agreed Stericycle should be allowed to pursue the move.
"I have grandchildren and children who live in the Tooele Valley. There is no way on this Earth or the life to come I would expose my children, grandchildren to something that may be harmful or toxic to them," Sagers said. "There is nothing in the world that would make me do that."
Lawmakers also noted that should Stericycle purchase school trust lands property and build its new plant in Tooele County, it will have to be built to the latest regulatory standards, which are more stringent than what they operate under now.
Company spokeswoman Selin Hoboy said the plant will have $1.5 million in upgrades installed at its North Salt Lake location by October to meet federal regulations adopted in 2009 that become effective this year.
That upgrade, Hoboy added, will result in a reduction of six pollutants by 90 percent — reductions that will be shaved even further with the new plant in Tooele County.
The company is in the midst of negotiations with the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration to purchase about 40 acres of property for a plant that would be located 11 miles from the nearest neighborhood.
The company, which operates at some level in 47 states, has not been chased out of any community, contrary to critics' claims, Hoboy said.
"We've actually lived pretty peacefully with (North Salt Lake) over the years," she said.
Stericycle accepts waste from eight states, including Utah, but the waste is flowing back and forth, Hoboy said. The company collects waste from any of its 700 pickup locations throughout Utah, but items that can be safely disposed of in a landfill through a super-heating process end up going out of state, while waste that has to be incinerated stays in the state or is conveyed to Utah via truck.
That waste includes trace chemotherapy, nonhazardous pharmaceuticals and pathological waste that can only be rendered chemically neutral through incineration, she said.
The resolution nows goes to the Utah Senate for consideration.