A proposed air quality permit for a new medical waste incinerator in Tooele County is open for public comment. The move allows an old plant to be removed from a residential neighborhood in North Salt Lake, but it also means the company could burn more waste and emit more pollutants into the air. State environmental officials are holding a meeting Monday night in Tooele to answer questions and hear concerns.
Gina Cooley once lived in the Foxboro neighborhood of North Salt Lake City, but she now lives with her husband and four young children in Erda, a rural area in Tooele County. Like many of her neighbors, she was concerned about the bypass stack at Stericyle’s nearby incinerator. Whenever there was an equipment malfunction or a power outage, the facility would shut off its usual pollution controls, and open a valve, releasing a dark cloud of pollutants that include nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide.
“There were several times people would get on Facebook saying get your kids inside, keep them inside, they’re venting. They’re using their bypass,” Cooley says. “It was pretty bad looking whenever they used that.”
Cooley and many neighbors started paying attention to the incinerator in 2013, when the Utah Division of Air Quality issued a notice of violation to Stericycle for exceeding its permitted limits for emissions of several pollutants, including nitrogen oxide and dioxin. The company was also cited for inaccurate reporting of stack test results. Cooley started to wonder if her son’s headaches could be related to pollution from the plant.
“My eldest son was dealing with daily headaches that we’d noticed for a year by then, and we were trying to figure out why and what it was,” Cooley says. Her pediatrician recommended a move away from the incinerator. There is no way to verify whether her son’s headaches were caused by the incinerator’s emissions, but Cooley says the headaches went away when they moved to Erda.
Today, she holds her youngest son in her lap while she looks out the window at the open fields behind her house. Cooley does not want an incinerator in her county.
“We have so many bad air quality days,” Cooley says. “We shouldn’t be allowing people to produce more pollution, especially with all the health problems that we’re starting to see with so many people breathing the pollutants that we do have already.”
The proposed site for the new incinerator is in a remote industrial area north of Interstate 80 on the southwestern edge of the Great Salt Lake. According to Stericycle officials, the nearest residential dwelling is more than 10 miles away. Under the new permit, Stericycle would be allowed to double the amount of waste burned and increase its emissions, but Utah air quality director Bryce Bird says it’s still classified as a minor source of air pollutants, and the overall risk to public health is reduced since the facility will be located so much farther away from residences.
“Emissions are added to the air shed, but this is a very small contribution of the overall air shed, so there wouldn’t likely be any way to detect any increased risk from this facility operating in that area,” Bird says.
Stericycle officials never admitted wrong-doing after the state’s notice of violation, but instead agreed to a settlement. The company was fined $2.3 million, but the fine was cut in half in exchange for its commitment to move. Since then, the company has been working to regain trust, says Jennifer Koenig, Vice President of Corporate Communications for Stericycle.
“We do believe that we’re working on the community trust by continuing to operate our current facility within compliance of the regulations below the emissions requirements and being available for questions and comments that the public may have,” Koenig says.
As a result of upgrades the company has made in North Salt Lake, Koenig says there has not been a bypass incident in over a year. With new more stringent federal requirements, the company had to install equipment that better controls hazardous emissions. Koenig says that will only be improved at the proposed Tooele site.
“The new facility will be constructed with state of the art technology,” she says. “Some of the technology will be similar, but it will be the latest and greatest models and it will really be directed at an even greater level of pollution control than what we have at the current North Salt Lake facility.”
Dr. Brian Moench is with Utah Physicians for a Health Environment, a group that has led the charge against Stericycle for several years. Moench says his group reluctantly supported the Utah Division of Air Quality with the idea to build a new facility in order to get the incinerator out of North Salt Lake, but he didn’t know that the new plant would double its capacity.
“We’re certainly surprised, and we feel betrayed, not necessarily by DAQ, I don’t think it was their idea, I don’t think they were hiding anything from us, but we feel betrayed again by Stericycle.”
Moench says he’s talking to lawyers to see if there is any way to require the state to restrict Stericycle’s waste processing to its current levels. Bryce Bird at The Division of Air Quality says that as long as the company is meeting all requirements for the permit, there is nothing the agency can do to stand in the way.
In the meantime, Stericycle is under scrutiny by the citizens of Tooele County. Jewel Allen is a Grantsville city councilor and the founder of the Facebook page Tooele County Concerned Citizens.
“We are very sensitive to once again having that stigma of you put things out in Tooele County that everybody doesn’t want,” Allen says. “I’m sensitive too to the fact that it’s a business. It means jobs for some people and stuff like that, but at the same time this was a company that was just fined 2.3 million dollars, so we have our concerns.”
Allen says people should learn all the information they can and make their own judgments. “I really urge citizens, those concerned, not just in Tooele County but anywhere else to come to the public hearing, ask questions, and don’t just accept it based on what they need in the news reports,” she says.
The public hearing is Monday, April 18th, at 5:30 p.m. in the auditorium at Tooele High School. The public comment period on the air quality permit is open until April 23rd.