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Whistleblower claims radioactive material incinerated at Stericycle

Whistleblower claims radioactive material incinerated at Stericycle

(File/Deseret News)


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NORTH SALT LAKE — An anonymous whistleblower's allegations that Stericycle knowingly incinerated radioactive waste in violation of its permit and doctored the amount of waste it processed has renewed calls for the plant's closure.

Critics that include Communities for Clean Air and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment say the assertions show that Stericycle should shutter its doors and be booted from Utah.

"As you can see, we are concerned more than ever before," said Alicia Connell, with Communities for Clean Air, making reference to the EnviroNews video posted online. "Does that make them a company we want to stay in Utah?"

The groups held a press conference Wednesday outside the governor's office at the state Capitol, challenging Gov. Gary Herbert to exercise his authority under state law to order the plant's closure.

"Utah and local officials made a serious mistake by siting this facility in the most populated area of Utah and then by allowing residences to be built right up to the property line," said Dr. Brian Moench, president of the physicians group. "It is time to correct that mistake."

As the only medical waste incineration facility in the West handling shipments from Utah and seven other states, Stericycle has long run afoul of its North Salt Lake neighbors opposed to its being near their homes.

The opposition was stoked to an even more vehement level after May of 2013, when the Utah Division of Air Quality issued a notice of violation asserting the facility was over its permitted threshold for emissions.

Regulators became suspicious in late 2011 and throughout 2012 during a series of three stack tests to determine the level and nature of pollutants released into the air from the plant. Ultimately, regulators said they found emission limits that eclipsed acceptable thresholds and evidence of company logs that were doctored.

Although the Utah Department of Environmental Quality and the company attempted to reach a resolution on the violations, the case was disputed by Stericycle and awaits a hearing by an administrative law judge.

"We are taking this seriously," said the department's executive director, Amanda Smith.

The allegations that logs were fraudulently altered are being investigated by the U.S. Attorney's Office.

In the video showcased to media Wednesday, the disguised whistleblower makes claims that are somewhat of an echo of what state regulators say they found: indications that the amount of material being processed was being doctored or altered to present a different reality.

The former employee, Moench says, told EnviroNews he did not want to publicly reveal himself for fear of jeopardizing the jobs of friends who still work there.

He said a female supervisor would order workers to illegally incinerate radioactive waste — which was supposed to be rejected on site and shipped to out-of-state disposal companies. In addition, for every one bag that was weighed, another five or six were allowed to go through, according to the video.

The company said Wednesday it is conducting its own probe of the allegations based on the videotaped interview.

"We take seriously and review any claims of deviation from operating procedures," said Jennifer Koenig, vice president of corporate communications. "While we believe many of the claims made in this interview are not feasible due to numerous monitoring systems and procedures, our contractual arrangements with customers and regulatory oversight, we are nonetheless undertaking our own investigation of the allegations."

Stericycle is planning to relocate its operations to Tooele County, a move facilitated by Utah lawmakers in legislation passed this last session.

The company idled its operations for nearly three weeks while new equipment was being installed for it to come into compliance with Clean Air Act regulations. It resumed operating on Tuesday.

Koenig said there will be a period of state review for startup operations in the North Salt Lake location. In July, commissioners granted the company a conditional use permit for its planned facility there.

Critics have stressed that the company's move, however, is not enough for them.

Moench said the incineration of medical waste is outdated, unnecessary and a public health hazard.

The groups say they are planning either a celebration of the plant's closure, or a protest of its continued operations, next Thursday in front of the plant in North Salt Lake.

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Amy Joi O'Donoghue

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