NORTH SALT LAKE — Seven years ago, Utah regulators sniffed something awry with the volume of pollutants coming out of the stacks of a North Salt Lake medical waste incinerator.
Four years and a $2.3 million fine later, Stericycle agreed to move its burn operations to a remote location in Tooele County and away from its suburban neighbors at the Foxboro subdivision.
Stericycle continues to incinerate medical waste in North Salt Lake, and while it has obtained its state permits for the planned move, no paperwork is in the hands of Tooele County officials.
"We are continuing the process," said company spokeswoman Jennifer Koenig. "It's been moving at its own pace, but we continue to work on it."
The Utah Division of Air Quality agreed to waive half of the company's $2.3 million fine — the highest the division assessed in its regulatory history — in a complicated agreement that included the move to Tooele County away from neighborhoods.
Stericycle incinerates medical waste that includes pathological streams, trace chemotherapy and nonhazardous pharmaceutical waste from clients such as hospitals and nursing homes.
Regulators first suspected irregularities in late 2011 and throughout 2012 during a series of three stack tests to determine the level and nature of pollutants released from the plant. Tests are supposed to be conducted at the maximum production or combustion rate and reflect normal, operational variances.
According to the division, the company first attempted to blame a flawed laboratory analysis for tests that were in violation of emission limits. After the division obtained additional information, it found that a Dec. 27-28, 2011, stack test exceeded levels for hazardous pollutants, as well as nitrogen oxides, or highly reactive gases.
Regulators also said they believed the company's logs were manipulated to show compliance with operating conditions.
Stericycle, which operates the West's lone medical waste incinerator, was already a target for neighbors who dislike living so close to the facility.
The violation generated more outcry, prompting public protests at the state Capitol, delivery of letters to Gov. Gary Herbert demanding the plant's shutdown and a march through North Salt Lake from critics joined by activist Erin Brockovich.
North Salt Lake City Manager Ken Leetham said he's in touch with Stericycle officials a couple times a year for updates on their move to Tooele County, and noted residents have been quiet about the plant's continued existence in their midst.
"To me it seems they are proceeding in a reasonable fashion. It is a slow process with very complex technology," he said.
Leetham said while the incineration component of Stericycle will ultimately move to Tooele County, the company has expressed interest in continuing its sorting operations in the North Salt Lake area.
He said about 20 percent to 30 percent of the waste the company receives in North Salt Lake is incinerated on site, while the rest is sorted and then distributed to other facilities across the country.
Koenig said the company is in the design phase for the new facility that will be located on a 40-acre parcel of land owned by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration roughly 10 miles from the nearest home and 25 miles from Grantsville.
"There have not been many medical waste incinerators built in the last 10 to 20 years," she said. "It (the design) is very, very specialized and specific to that site."
Koenig said water supply is also factoring into the timing of the planned move.
The company has the option to drill an on-site well and pump groundwater, which would have to be treated because of its high salt content or tap into water several miles away, which Koenig said would require construction of a pipeline.
She added they may also obtain clean water from a third source and have it transported via truck and stored at the facility in a water tank.
Stericycle successfully applied for water rights from the state and gained approval for a water distribution system for its own water distribution system for potable use.
Once the company has obtained all necessary permits and approval from the governor for the move, a three-year timeline deadline begins ticking for the move to become complete.
Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality, said the company has not had any emission problems since it made improvements in operations, including adding an emergency generator that is large enough to power the facility.