Public debate on our air pollution is being dominated by misinformation disseminated by industry and government officials about the sources, consequences, and the regulations needed to address the problem. It is long overdue that Utah citizens hear not just the truth, but the whole story. —Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment
SALT LAKE CITY — Foes of the medical waste incineration plant Stericycle say their tests show four homes closest to the business have greatly elevated levels of dioxin — highly toxic, cancer-causing compounds.
"This is hard, concrete evidence," said Robert Bowcock, part of environmental activist Erin Brockovich's team brought on by opponents to the North Salt Lake business.
Bowcock said the results from testing done Jan. 25 on the attics of four homes near the business have been forwarded to the state.
"What we are providing them is long–term evidence," he said. "It took awhile for those dioxins to accumulate in that attic dust."
Alicia Connell, with Communities for Clean Air, said the Environmental Protection Agency threshold for industrial areas has a numerical yardstick of 4.2 units used to measure dioxins. By comparison, the home closest to Stericycle came in at 72.6 units, she said.
"These results are pretty clear," she said.
Opponents of Stericycle met with Utah Gov. Gary Hebert on Wednesday, reiterating their demands for the plant's closure.
"We are encouraged. The governor is going to step up and help where he can," Connell said, adding that a review of the situation is slated to happen within 30 days.
Stericycle officials said Wednesday it was the first they had heard of their opponents' testing. "We can't comment at this time on results we really don't know anything about," said company spokesman Selin Hoboy.
Stericycle has been in the crosshairs of advocates who want the company to cease its operations in Utah, angst that has been stoked by a May violation that accuses it of violating its pollution limits set by a state permit.
That violation is under contention and an allegation that the plant falsified its operational logs is under investigation by the EPA. Its records were subpoenaed last fall.
With the North Salt Lake location becoming an increasingly hostile environment for the company to operate, Stericycle has been pursuing a move to Tooele County. Such a relocation would require the approval of Herbert and the Utah Legislature, and a bill to that effect is wending its way through the process.
In the meantime, Stericycle's troubles fit into a larger complaint by clean air advocates that the state is not doing enough to protect its residents from the harmful effects of industrial pollution.
A doctors group has called out the Utah Division of Air Quality on numbers it says greatly underestimate the industrial contribution to air quality and for its regulatory stance that does not do enough.
Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said the division's statement that industry accounts for 11 percent of the PM2.5, or fine particulate pollution, in Salt Lake County is flat wrong.
"There are some real public health implications to all the misinformation that is out there," he said. "Pollution from one smokestack can be much more toxic than pollution from another smokestack, but the state treats it all the same."
Moench and a half-dozen other doctors are hosting a public seminar at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Salt Lake Main Library auditorium called "Smoke and Mirrors: Fact vs. Fiction about Utah's Air Pollution."
The Utah Division of Air Quality stands by its numbers, which are based on extensive analysis, said director Bryce Bird, adding he strongly disagrees with the contention the information is misleading.
"That is something we do not agree with," he said.
He added that the technical justification for the numbers was developed by scientists, meteorologists and atmospheric chemists who work at the division whose efforts were carried out in coordination with experts at the Environmental Protection Agency. Even if the number for industry was at a 40 percent contribution level, it would not have changed the planning process for the state's attack on bringing fine particulates under control, he said.
"You would still need a plan to go after the percentage that is left — mobile and area sources."
Moench and other groups have also been critical of recent findings by the Utah Department of Health that rejected any correlation between incidences of cancer and North Salt Lake residents who live in the vicinity of Stericycle.
Although the health department survey found a slight elevation of certain types of cancer in the study area, officials said the numbers did not conclusively prove a link to Stericycle.
In addition, an epidemiologist said the cancers were not environmentally linked.
"We are concerned that they do not seem to understand there is a lot of new medical research that shows the correlation between environmental contamination and the cancers they mentioned were elevated in this group," he said.