What's Burning in the Backyard: North Salt Lake City's Options
North Salt Lake City residents will elect their leaders next week, and those running for office say that Stericycle’s medical waste incinerator has become a major issue in their campaigns. The company and the state Division of Air Quality are engaged in a legal battle over whether the incinerator exceeded permitted levels of pollutants in its emissions. Meanwhile, citizens are calling on city leaders to move the incinerator or shut it down. In the 2nd of our two part series we take a look at North Salt Lake City’s options.
When famous environmental activist Erin Brockovich came to North Salt Lake last month, the auditorium of Foxboro Elementary School was filled to capacity. The crowd was fired up.
After she spoke, a citizen stood up to address North Salt Lake Mayor Len Arave.
“If I were you, I would not renew their license. It’s that simple.”
Later, in a quieter moment, Arave told us that he stands with the citizens - that Stericycle should not be in the Foxboro neighborhood.
“Stericycle right now – it doesn’t take a genius to look out there and say we have incompatible uses. The citizens think, the city administration thinks, and Stericycle think that it’s just not working there,” Arave says.
So what about revoking their license or their conditional use permit?
“As we’ve talked to legal counsel, we think it would be a long process, it would require hiring additional counsel, expert witnesses, a trial, appeals, it’s just going to take a long time if you can never get it done."
So, you’re assuming that Stericycle would appeal?
“I would be surprised if we said we’re going to take away your business license, and they said golly gee, wish you wouldn’t have done that, but we’ll close our business down. I don’t think it will happen,” he says.
For a while, Arave had been telling citizens it’s out of the city’s hands. It’s up to the state to determine if Stericycle had violated its permit, and how they would be regulated. But in early September, Arave started talking about this idea of moving the incinerator out of North Salt Lake. He told KUER that he had talked to Stericycle officials, and that they were open to the idea. Arave says he doesn’t want to take his small city into battle with a multi-billion dollar corporation.
“David beat Goliath before, and we could maybe beat Goliath again," Arave says. "We’re talking to them and they’re telling us that they’re willing to move if they can find a home and they can get a place that works out for them. Why take the adversarial approach when we think we can get to where we as a city want to be working with them?”
Stericycle has not responded to a request for comment, so we were not able to confirm with company officials if they are considering a move.
So we talked to Arave’s opponent, Ryan Macfarlane and asked him what he has to say about Stericycle. He told me he was out there to support the citizens who wanted the incinerator shut down.
“I think it’s kind of black and white. If you can see it you can smell it, it’s not good. We don’t want them here,” he says.
But Macfarlane didn’t really have a plan for what to do about it.
“I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, I would do all I could do to help shut them down,” Macfarlane says.
Looking around the Foxboro neighborhood – there are campaign signs for both McFarlane and Arave, but some of the most active citizens on this issue say they are supporting Arave.
Like Becca Hubrich, who lives right across the street from the incinerator, with a view of the smoke stack out her kitchen window. Hubrich feels like she was deceived when she bought her home. And Len Arave was the chief financial officier for the company who sold it to her – Woodside Homes. But it’s Arave’s sign she’s got in her front yard. Hubrich says, the important thing is that Arave is working now to fix the problem.
“There are a lot of very frustrated, very angry citizens in this community, that say he should have done something a long time ago. However, he’s doing something now, and I applaud that and I support that. He’s what we have, and his opponent is ill-qualified to handle it,” Hubrich says.
“I think it’s the number one issue in North Salt Lake right now. Everyone I’ve spoken to has an opinion on it one way or another,” says North Salt Lake City Council candidate Ryan Mumford.
At a recent election forum, City hall was filled with people waiting to hear what the candidates had to say about Stericycle. Mumford, along with his opponents Matt Jenson and James Emory Hill all said the incinerator was among their top priorities.
So what do they think should be done about Stericycle?
They’re all on board with the mayor’s plan, but there is some difference of opinion when it comes to health concerns and regulations. Ryan Mumford says he lives three houses away from Stericycle, and he is concerned for the health of his family and the community.
"I’m not a doctor, and I haven’t done intensive studies, but I do know that pollution is a problem, and that the doctors and scientists tell us that this is a major concern, and that maybe the regulatory levels aren’t stringent enough for our children,” Mumford says.
Incumbent City councilor Matt Jensen also lives in Foxboro, and he says state regulations are good enough for him.
“As long as they’re operating underneath their permits they are not, according to the EPA, posing any health risk to the residents of North Salt Lake or the community, however we have a vision of North Salt Lake that doesn’t include a medical waste incinerator in the long term,” Jensen says.
Foxboro resident Roxey Catanzaro has political signs in her front yard supporting Jensen and Arave. She and other residents met with them earlier this month, She says they seem to be listening and responding to public pressure.
“Obviously they wanted to be re-elected, so if they wanted our votes, they knew they had to take care of things,” she says.
Catanzaro says she’s worried about the possible health effects on her children from the incinerator’s emissions. But moving is not an option for her family of five. She says she can’t afford it, and she doesn’t want to.
“We really love it, we’re really involved in the church community down here, we love our school, we just don’t want to leave," she says. "I’ve never been one to put signs in my yard for politics, but we love our community and we want to take care of it.”
Election day is November 5. Meanwhile, Stericycle has challenged the state’s allegations that it violated its permit. The Division of Air Quality says that legal process could take months to resolve. The legislature is expected to consider a statewide ban on medical waste incineration in its upcoming session.
In the meantime, whoever is elected in North Salt Lake is under pressure to address the medical waste incinerator still in their community.