SALT LAKE CITY — It is only an early step in a long process, but a legislative panel gave unanimous approval Wednesday to enable a controversial medical waste incineration plant to relocate from North Salt Lake to Tooele County.
While most resolutions introduced in legislative sessions are message-oriented and a way for lawmakers to go on record on a particular issue, HR6 is more than just window dressing.
"This is kind of the starting gate," said the sponsor, Majority Whip Greg Hughes, R-Draper. "This is not the first step, or the last step."
The resolution was heard before the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee and will now be up for consideration by the full House and Senate.
Stericycle, the only facility of its kind in the West, is negotiating with the Utah School Trust Lands Administration to purchase 40 acres west of Tooele to build a new plant.
Controversy has dogged the facility at its North Salt Lake location because of alleged permit violations and because the once-industrial area is now home to the Foxboro subdivision and an elementary school.
Hughes said both Stericycle and elected leaders realize its current location is no longer ideal, but the company could probably make a strong "private property rights" argument to stay put.
His resolution, he said, advances a realistic solution to the problem.
"There is a better answer than to remain where they are at," he said. "This resolution is required by statute to begin a process for relocation."
The move, which is opposed by North Salt Lake neighborhood critics and activists who would rather have the plant completely shut down, ultimately requires the support of the Utah Legislature, the governor's endorsement and completion of a technical review by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.
Selin Hoboy, Stericycle's vice president of governmental affairs, said the company recognizes North Salt Lake is no longer a good fit and that the move to Tooele County would facilitate the construction of a new, more efficient plant.
"The new facility will be one of the first of its kind, state of the art and use the best available technology," she said. "We will be reducing pollutants by more than 90 percent in most cases."
Hoboy said that even though the plant is "grandfathered" in with North Salt Lake's ordinances, the plant is precluded from expanding under its current operational permits issued by the city and due to natural space constraints.
"This would give us the opportunity to potentially expand that facility," she said. "It would provide added jobs and revenue to Tooele County in a land particularly suited for this type of activity."
Hughes said Stericycle would still have to go through the state permitting process, which would impose more stringent controls than Stericycle encountered in Davis County.
"This bill is not a debate on medical waste incineration," he said. "This bill is really the beginning of a statutory process for a relocation. This is a great win for everyone involved."
One North Salt Lake resident, Nicola Nelson, urged caution in moving a "polluting" facility from one county to another and stressed that protections would have to be put in place for North Salt Lake during the shutdown.
While companies move every day without needing the approval of the Utah Legislature or governor, Stericycle needs legislative approval and the endorsement of the governor because it is a commercial facility that handles solid waste.
Stericycle is contesting a violation citation issued by state environmental regulators contending that the firm breached pollution thresholds set by the company's permit and manipulated operational logs to mischaracterize the volume of its business. The EPA is also conducting a criminal probe into the log alterations.
Public furor over the case has resulted in multiple rallies and marches by activists demanding the plant be shut down. On Wednesday, however, some Stericycle supporters indicated the company would be a welcome addition to the western desert, including Tooele County Commissioner Shawn Milne.
"We believe the Stericycle proposal is one of sound judgment," he said.
Added resident Reg Johnson, "(Tooele County) successfully incinerated some of the most deadly chemical and biological weapons the Earth has ever had. We did that successfully and we did that without any harm to the public. So I strongly believe we can incinerate nonhazardous medical waste, and I think they will do it successfully."
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