SALT LAKE CITY — A formal request by the North Salt Lake mayor and growing public concern led Utah Gov. Gary Herbert on Thursday to order a three-tiered health study of Stericycle's impact on the surrounding community and the chemicals it releases.
The added pressure on the medical waste incineration facility brought praise by community groups and activists who have been pushing for Stericycle to shut down in the wake of allegations it signficantly violated pollution limits set in its permit issued by the state.
"We are excited and grateful that Gov. Herbert is taking the medical waste incineration issue seriously and is considering the health and safety of Utah residents," said Alicia Connell, co-founder of Communities For Clean Air. "It is about time that Stericycle was held accountable, but is soil sampling enough? Our end goal is to see medical waste incineration eliminated in the state of Utah. There are better, safer technologies for disposing of medical waste."
Herbert sent three letters Thursday — one to Charles A. Alutto, president and chief executive officer of Illinois-headquartered Stericycle; one to Steven DeBry, chairman of the Salt Lake County Council; and one to North Salt Lake Mayor Len Arave.
The probe, to be conducted by the state health department in conjunction with the Davis County Health Department and other relevant agencies, focuses on three areas, outlined by Herbert in the letters.
A "health consultation" to identify and address potential impacts of dioxin and furan releases from the Stericycle medical waste incineration plant in North Salt Lake, including a literature review. The review will look at exposures to dioxin and furan at similar industrial sites.
An analysis of existing soil samples from the Stericycle site.
An assessment of the health effects in the area surrounding the Stericycle facility, which will involve the collection of soil samples of sites most likely to have suffered contamination.
As an added measure, Herbert said the health study will be certified by the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry and the health department will release a detailed report for the state.
Herbert, who was not available for interviews Thursday, noted in his letter to DeBry that there have been no documented ongoing violations at the Stericycle plant, and the appropriate state agencies are ensuring that the medical waste incinerator operates in full compliance. He stressed, however, that the company would be held accountable for its past violations.
The governor's letter to DeBry comes two weeks after the Salt Lake County Council unanimously weighed in on the issue, adopting a resolution urging Herbert to consider ordering the North Salt Lake business to cease emitting harmful pollutants.
Controversy surrounding what is the West's only remaining plant of its kind was ignited in late spring after the state Division of Air Quality issued a notice of violation asserting the facility was over its permitted threshold for emissions.
Regulators became suspicious in late 2011 and through 2012 during a series of three stack tests to determine the level and nature of pollutants released into the air from the plant. Tests are supposed to be conducted at the maximum production or combustion rate and reflect normal, operational variances, said Bryce Bird, Utah Division of Air Quality director.
According to the May notice, Stericycle at first attempted to blame a flawed laboratory analysis for tests that were in violation of emission limits. After the division obtained additional information, it found that a Dec. 27-28, 2011, stack test exceeded levels for hazardous pollutants, as well as nitrogen oxides, or highly reactive gases.
Regulators asserted that there were repeated problems with other tests and discrepancies that popped up in the company's logs that misled them, including logs that were manipulated that were not reflective of normal operating conditions.
The aspect of the case regarding altered information has been forwarded to the Environmental Protection Agency for a criminal probe.
In September, environmental activist Erin Brockovich led concerned neighbors and anxious Davis County residents on a march from the nearby Foxboro Elementary School to the plant, demanding in the rally the facility move elsewhere.
At the community town hall meeting in which Brockovich spoke, the North Salt Lake mayor said city officials and Stericycle had been in discussions about the possible move of Stericycle because its current location was no longer an appropriate fit for the industrial plant.
Late last month, Stericycle informed the state Division of Air Quality it is fighting the violation it was issued, refuting the allegations about being out of compliance with its permit.