North Salt Lake families live in subdivision next to medical incinerator

By Nicole Warburton
July 6, 2006

NORTH SALT LAKE — It was mid-morning, so the July sun had yet to reach its peak. Jennifer Nobbs was out on her front step in the Foxboro subdivision, watching her twin boys, Zack and Ben, play.

Harley Burns climbs on a playground in North Salt Lake’s Foxboro subdivision near Stericycle, visible behind homes in background. Some residents question why the city allowed homes to be built so close to the plant.

“With as many people and things that are here,” she said, “it’s still pretty quiet.”

The steady hum of machinery from her back-door neighbor, Stericycle, doesn’t bother her much anymore. Nor does the near-transparent steam emitted from the plant — one of 72 medical-waste incinerators still operating in the United States.

Nine years ago, approximately 2,400 such incinerators were in operation across the nation, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But most have closed.

Utah’s plant now accepts waste from several states, including Arizona and California, where medical-waste incinerators have shut down in recent years due to increased state and federal regulation and outcry from residents.

Incinerators emit pollutants such as mercury, lead, cadmium and nitrogen oxides. They also are a top source of dioxin, a chemical compound thought to increase a person’s risk of cancer. Studies show that long-term exposure to dioxin, even at low levels, can cause developmental and reproductive problems in animals.

In North Salt Lake, developers began building Foxboro around 2003. Back yards of homes now abut the incineration plant. The development has sold about 700 homes, with plans for 500 more. Four schools are also planned for the area.

A dozen families share a back fence with Stericycle, including Nobbs and her boys. Residents’ attitudes about the plant range from indifference to outright concern. “We were told about it, but that it was safe,” said Foxboro resident Angela Saxby. “We didn’t know what it really was until we moved in and Googled it.”

Saxby and other residents, along with national activists, want Stericycle to switch to an autoclave technology, which uses steam to kill pathogens in the waste. That method emits fewer pollutants than incineration.

The residents also question why city officials allowed homes to be built so close to the plant in the first place.

The land around Stericycle was rezoned from general commercial to residential use in 2003. Stericycle’s original site plan, with which it received state permits to operate, said no homes were to be located within a mile of the plant.

” We have a situation where young families are not only making a financial investment as they’re getting into homeownership, but many have infants and young children that are particularly susceptible to dioxin,” said Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction, a California-based environmental group. “They are being polluted without being informed of what they live next to, and that is unacceptable.”

Inadequate regulation?

Stericycle is the nation’s largest medical-waste disposal company. Its North Salt Lake incinerator sits at the south entrance to Foxboro, at 90 North and 1100 West. Company officials denied repeated requests over the past six days for comment for this story.

North Salt Lake Mayor Kay Briggs defended the city’s decision to rezone the land next to the Stericycle facility. The plant was shown to be in compliance with all state hazardous-waste and air-quality requirements, he said.

According to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, Stericycle has had four compliance violations in the past five years. Two were because the company tested too high for chemicals in the ash of incinerated items. The others were a late submission of paperwork and failure to calibrate equipment by a certain date.”

The only thing I can say is that you have to rely on what you’re told by various groups, and if they say it’s safe, then you can’t really say a whole lot about houses being built,” said Briggs. “If there’s a better way, then they have a responsibility to tell us that, but I don’t see — from what I know now — anything to stop us from the current zoning procedures.”

Thane Smith, land-acquisition and development manager for Woodside Homes of Utah, the subdivision’s developer, said that based on information from the company, “there are no toxins or chemicals that have come out of Stericycle that would affect the residents at all.”

But the developer requires homebuyers in Foxboro to sign a waiver acknowledging that the plant is there. Some residents, including Kristin Roubinet, who moved to Foxboro in March, said they have no recollection of signing the waiver.

Activists say state and federal testing requirements provide inadequate data on what is emitted from the incinerator and the potential danger. State and federal law allows incinerators to self-test for some pollutants, but they must hire outside companies to test for others. Carl Daly, an environmental engineer with the EPA, said the requirements are stringent. Test data show that the Stericycle plant is well below legal limits for most emissions, but its emissions of nitrogen oxides are close to the state limit of 250 parts per million dry volume. Stericycle’s last test showed it emitted 214 ppmdv.

Stericycle’s Utah plant is also allowed by the state to bypass its pollution-control system during an emergency breakdown or malfunction of equipment. Pollutants released during bypass events aren’t included in the data reported to the state.

Dioxin concerns

Between January 2003 and August 2005, Stericycle had 57 bypasses, according to Cindy King with the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club. The state DEQ, which did not have bypass numbers readily available, said King’s numbers “appeared” accurate.

King said she has also seen black smoke coming from the plant. The state denies that ever happens. But residents say they also have seen black smoke. The smoke is an indicator of dioxin and other pollutants being released, King said.

“Should people trust test data that denies that black smoke is coming out when black smoke is coming out?” asked Angel, with Greenaction. “There’s a lot of young families there, women bearing children. It’s of environmental concern.”

In Illinois, where Stericycle is headquartered, state leaders began enacting tighter emission laws two years ago for incinerators, resulting in the closure of most of the state’s hospital incinerators. In Arizona and California, community activists have helped pressure Stericycle to stop incinerating and instead use autoclave technology to dispose of medical waste.

Stericycle says on its Web site that it is “committed to moving from the incineration of waste to alternative treatment technologies.” But the company has made no such efforts in Utah, according to activists.

The state Division of Air Quality defends the company as a “good player” that follows rules. “If there were safety concerns, it would have been brought up with us or the health department by now,” said Dean.

Over the next few weeks, Greenaction plans to hold public meetings in North Salt Lake about a possible campaign against Stericycle. Resident Melou Cline said she plans to push the company until it changes its technology.

“We need industry, but let’s make sure the safest alternatives are used and that government plays their proper role,” she said. “I’ve never been an environmentalist, but I care about what’s going into the air.”