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In our opinion: Unpleasant but necessary — allow medical waste facility to relocate

Published: Monday, March 3 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

The Stericycle medical waste incineration plant in North Salt Lake.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News Archives

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The Stericycle controversy in Davis County seems to have boiled down to a battle of dueling scientific studies. Other than recent allegations that the company’s incinerator violated pollution standards, state studies have shown emissions to be well within defined limits. Neighbors, however, hired their own investigator, who says he found cancer-causing compounds in the attics of nearby homes

The Wasatch Front is known for its world-class medical facilities, from the Huntsman Cancer Center to Intermountain Healthcare’s medical services. These have gained national recognition and could become even more significant internationally. These health care facilities and others generate pathological waste, contaminated gloves and instruments and residual chemotherapy drugs. These must be disposed of properly.

Stericycle began operating 25 years ago, at a time when it stood alone in an undeveloped area of North Salt Lake. The homes of the neighbors who now worry about emissions from its incinerator were built next to the plant long after it opened. None of which mitigates the potential harm to those residents, should recent reports from the neighborhood activists hold true.

Fortunately, a reasonable solution exists. Stericycle has found a place to relocate, on 40 acres of land 50 miles north of Tooele. Some opponents aren’t satisfied by this. They would like Stericycle to cease to exist in Utah. Even in a remote part of Tooele County, they say, a modernized incinerator would still damage the air shed that covers the Wasatch Front.

This argument does not stand up to scrutiny. Figures from the Utah Division of Air Quality show that Stericycle emits only 24 tons of the 40,000 tons emitted each year in Salt Lake and Davis counties.

A move to Tooele County does not pose a risk remotely near the alleged pollution found in the homes near the current site. Meanwhile, the move would ensure that a disposal site and incinerator for medical waste remains available for the health care facilities along the Wasatch Front.

At least two measures related to Stericycle are pending with the Utah Legislature. One, SB196 by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Davis, would prohibit the state from approving a permit for an infectious waste incinerator within a two-mile radius of a residential area. In the case of Stericycle, residential homebuilders moved into an area already occupied by the disposal facility. Given the company’s current plans to move to Tooele, the bill would be counterproductive.

The other measure, HJR6 by Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, is “A Joint Resolution Approving a Commercial, Non-Hazardous Solid Waste Disposal Facility in a New Location.” It is a useful show of support that deserves approval.

We cannot legislate away unpleasant but necessary waste disposal processes — particularly in light of Utah’s growing prominence as a medical center. At the same time, it makes sense to move such facilities as far away from population centers as possible.

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