If Stericycle's medical waste incinerator in North Salt Lake ever emitted pollution levels beyond standards designed to protect human health, then Utah Division of Air Quality officials say they would send out a notice.
Despite the lack of any such alerts after years of keeping a close watch on Stericycle, residents are still concerned as the company's five-year permit renewal comes up for public discussion.
North Salt Lake resident Andrea Seminario has two children attending a school near the incinerator, which emits lead, mercury and dioxin at what the state says are low or safe levels, even during incidents when pollution-control equipment is bypassed.
"Who wants to have their children go to school nearby where that's happening?" Seminario asked in an interview. "It's just not healthy."
Seminario, who had asthma before moving to North Salt Lake five years ago, said she and her husband have talked about moving. She said her own respiratory condition is made worse by the overall air quality in her neighborhood, impacted by multiple factors. Her children's health, she said, is fine.
Stericycle's Selin Hoboy said Friday in an e-mail response to questions from the Deseret News that the North Salt Lake facility, which it acquired in 1999, is state-of-the-art, clean, safe and well-run and that emotional issues such as these may be driven by people's unfamiliarity with the technology and subject matter involved.
"In the entire history that Stericycle has owned and operated the North Salt Lake facility, we have never had a single emissions or air-quality-related violation of any kind whatsoever," said Hoboy, vice president over environmental safety and health. "We are very proud of the facility's outstanding operating record."
To state regulators, Stericycle is a minor player on the pollution stage.
"They're a pretty small emitter," said Regg Olsen, a permitting manager for DAQ.
Olsen points out a bigger potential air quality concern to the north, where a row of oil refineries releases more pollutants into the air on a daily basis than Stericycle. He also noted how rigorous air quality standards developed by scientists for the federal Environmental Protection Agency are sufficient to be applied to companies like Stericycle.
"They do have an impact, there's no question about that," Olsen said about Stericycle. "If you look at it in the context of what is going on in the air shed, it's probably not very significant."
DAQ director Cheryl Heying said that much of the area around Stericycle is industrial, with a sand and gravel operation, refineries and lots of traffic from I-15 and I-215. But it's also where Woodside Homes developed the Foxboro subdivision, where residents have said fouled air is affecting their children.
"It is just like a hub of everything," Heying said. "It's industrial. It's transportation. We've got things coming together. ... It's complicated. You can't just say it in a couple of buzzwords."
Olsen and Heying said Stericycle continues to comply with their permit, which will be the subject of an open house and hearing on Sept. 2. With the permit renewal application there is reportedly no change in emissions or amount of waste being incinerated at Stericycle's facility, located at 90 N. 1100 West in North Salt Lake. The public comment period for the permit application has been extended until Sept. 8.
In recent years questions have filtered into the DAQ about the publicly traded Illinois-based Stericycle, which by law is allowed to accept waste at its Utah site from around the country. On the whole, Stericycle has been described by stock advisor Steven Halpern as an "almost perfect business" and "absolutely essential service," one that he said no one else wants to provide, thereby creating a near monopoly. Stericycle, with incinerators in other states and around the world, continues to grow, with 2008 second quarter revenues of $277.8 million, up 19 percent over the same quarter last year.
Olsen said DAQ has responded to residents' concerns well above what is required, including setting up a page on their Web site, deq.utah.gov, dedicated as a clearing house for Stericycle-related questions and issues. Stericycle officials say the Web site should soon contain new emission data for people to review.
As for residents whose worries have not been or cannot be assuaged by the Web site or access to DAQ officials, Olsen suggested that people educate themselves on their surroundings before moving into a home. Olsen even said he'd feel safe living with children (his are grown) near Stericycle's incinerator. Also, no one at DAQ who is monitoring Stericycle is aware of any county or state health department studies that would indicate the incinerator is causing health problems.
"There's some responsibility to do some due diligence to know where they're moving into," Olsen said. "If we as DAQ knew that the emissions were at a level we thought would cause health issues, we would make that known."
DAQ has said that during emergency bypasses of Stericycle's pollution control equipment, which do occur, emissions of pollutants don't go up enough to justify installation of an audible alarm that would notify nearby residents who have expressed an interest in such a device for the sake of children possibly playing outside at the time.
Though residents want a closer watch on the incinerator, there is no continuous monitoring of Stericycle by DAQ. And state air standards branch manager Rusty Ruby said the company's permit requires it to report emissions data to the state every three years.
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