Utah faces a heap of toxic garbage concerns both real and imagined — and in some regards, residents of the Beehive State are their own worst enemy.

With our big families and lackluster conservation efforts, Utahns generate trash. Lots of it. And that trash production contributes to a larger environmental problem. Throughout the state, well-publicized incidents show growing concern about the health toll of incinerators, landfills and the parks and properties built on top of dumps:

In Davis County, a group of residents is investigating what they consider to be a grave community danger — the plant where tons of their own garbage is burned. Some residents believe excessive dioxin emissions from the state's only household and commercial waste incinerator are giving them brain cancer. The Davis County Health Department, under urging from the public and activists, has initiated an investigation into residents' claims.

In an unprecedented declaration, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services last month upgraded dioxin, which is produced at the Layton incinerator, to a "known human carcinogen," intensifying fears of residents and activists who have long worried that the chemical is hazardous to communities.

In Utah County, residents have sued a developer who built a community of manufactured homes on the old Spanish Fork Landfill, which closed a decade ago. Syringes, medicine bottles, tires, asbestos and foul odors have emerged from the old dump site through the lawns and landscaping of Spanish Fork Ranch residents.

This month the Utah County Health Department issued a strong warning about long-lasting landfill dangers. "It should be recognized that any dwelling placed on top of an active biological system, such as a landfill, is fraught with hazards," according to a department statement, which says this should be done "only as a last resort."

In other areas, state officials are monitoring dumps where tests have given rise to concerns about groundwater contamination.

Who is to blame?

For years, Klint Woolsey enjoyed the peas and tomatoes, squash, radishes, corn and carrots he grew on his Layton property. Now he believes the produce might have been harmful instead of healthy.

Less than a mile away, two tall stacks from a Wasatch Energy Systems incinerator emit into the air byproducts from tons of trash burned every day — and some of those byproducts are toxic.

The 72-year-old Woolsey didn't connect the incinerator to his own life until a year ago, when he began stumbling while on vacation in Arizona with his wife. He was falling down, Woolsey said recently from his daughter's Layton home. Not acting himself. "Pretty soon, I didn't know anything."

A CAT scan showed a shadow on his brain. Two days later, doctors removed 90 percent of a brain tumor as big as an apple.

The cancer has caused Woolsey, his family and other residents to look to the incinerator and ask questions.

Four times in the past six years the plant has failed state-mandated tests of dioxin emissions. The incinerator currently has no way to regulate dioxin. The plant repeatedly appeals its failed tests, and it has asked the state to double the amount of dioxin it is allowed to release. The state Air Quality Board has not ruled on this request.

These repeated emission failures and residents' perception the plant is dragging its feet about addressing the problem have led to a grass-roots effort to link the incinerator to gliosarcoma, the type of brain cancer Woolsey has. The idea is that dioxin travels into the ground and air nearby — it gets absorbed into the soil, inhaled by residents and eaten by animals that graze in Davis County.

"We've had a garden and we've been eating out of it for 13 years, so I don't know . . . " Woolsey said.

Woolsey's daughter, Louise Love of Layton, has done her own research. "I have no proof right now. But how am I going to get any until I get someone out here to do a study?"

A hand-drawn map shows 30 cases of gliosarcoma Love has tracked down among friends, neighbors and residents within a three-mile radius of the incinerator.

Karen Keller, epidemiologist for the State Department of Health, said 30 gliosarcoma diagnoses would be extremely high for such an area, but her office hasn't been able to verify all 30 cases. Without verification — from individual doctors who are reluctant to divulge patients' histories or pin cancers and problems on a specific source — Keller's hands are tied.

Woolsey's physician, Dr. Deborah T. Blumenthal, director of the division of neuro-oncology and assistant professor of neurology at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, says this case does not illustrate a connection as strong as that between smoking and certain types of lung cancer.

She has seen Love's list of 30 people with brain tumors and knows Woolsey as well as two other residents who died of "GBM" or glioblastoma. She has not confirmed the other cases of gliosarcoma, a rare type of GBM.

She said she is concerned about the list and says it is appropriate to encourage a cancer cluster study. "From what I could find out about dioxin, I didn't see a link with brain cancers," Blumenthal said. She did see lab evidence that chronic dioxin exposure in rats causes lung lesions, ovarian tumors and liver tumors.

Davis County officials, meanwhile, have followed the notion that dioxin is less harmful than other, ever-present environmental hazards of disposing solid waste.

"Yeah, there's people in Layton with cancer," said Layton Mayor Jerry Stevenson, who also chairs Wasatch Energy's board. "Did the incinerator cause it? I don't think so."

Burning vs. burying

Burning trash has an upside. It reduces landfill waste, kills bacteria that might otherwise seep into groundwater and potentially reduces ozone-depleting gases emitted by decomposing trash.

And every year Utah must find someplace to stuff the 4 million tons of solid and hazardous waste enough to fill the Delta Center 18 timesits residences and businesses generate. Most of that garbage is put in landfills, and about 4 percent is burned at the Layton incinerator. Landfill problems are obvious in Spanish Fork, where a master-planned residential community was built on a former dump. Residents living on the site now suffer headaches, nausea and hair loss, and the county health department has ordered all homes on the former landfill moved.

The physical symptoms in Spanish Fork are most often blamed on methane gas, which is constantly emitted from landfills. The ground above the old landfill has also tested positive for asbestos, which is linked to lung cancer.

"I don't dare take a drink of water or turn on the heater. I'm afraid our house is going to blow up," Spanish Fork resident Erin Dodge said last month. "We shouldn't have to live there."

To bury or not to bury. To burn or not to burn. Sentiment is varied on all sides of the garbage issue.

And many residents see Utah as the nation's favorite dumping ground. A new 2,400-acre landfill in east Carbon is touting successes. Buried there are dregs from New York Harbor, tons of contaminated soil from a northern California railyard, shredded car parts from General Motors plants.

"We're willing to take waste from anywhere," Kirk Treece, ECDC general manager, told lawmakers last fall during a tour of the site.

Within the garbage discussion, the Layton incinerator has been under nearly constant fire.

LeGrand Bitter, executive director of Wasatch Energy, is a perpetual cheerleader for the incineration industry, and he frequently notes how dangerous everyday landfills can be. "Some places have been able to just dig a hole in the ground," he said. Bitter is quick to offer statistics that indicate dioxin emissions aren't as evil as advertised. He maintains two families of four burning their waste in a backyard barrel would produce as much dioxin as his incinerator, which burns 400 tons of trash per day and has no dioxin control measures.

A presenter told him that at a conference, he says. "I have no reason to doubt that representation."

Trashing Utah

Certainly, Wasatch Energy reduces landfill space. "There is no 100 percent environmentally safe way of disposing of garbage — whatever you do," said Stevenson. "We have to reduce that garbage as much as we can."

But Utahns don't reduce.

Statewide, consumers contribute mountains to a trash disposal problem that is at best disconcerting and at worst a full-fledged health hazard. We barely recycle. We rarely conserve. We fill up our trash cans and watch their contents disappear into the backside of garbage trucks that carry their loads to places most people have never seen.

"The state doesn't have a mandated recycling goal," explained Ralph Bohn, solid waste section manager for the state Division of Solid Waste Management. So the state doesn't track recycling.

The best recycling data Bohn has comes from BioCycle Magazine, which conducts a yearly national recycling survey. The magazine reports that Utah recycles 15-20 percent of its waste. In comparison, Arizona recycles 26 percent of its trash, Oregon 30 percent, Maine and New York, 42 percent.

Along the Wasatch Front, West Jordan and Sandy are the only cities with mandatory recycling, which means residents pay for curbside recycling service even if they don't use it. Recycling proponents say more cities need to follow the two cities' lead.

"They say they're able to reduce their waste by half," said Brad Mertz, marketing manager for recycler BFI. "It reduces what they have to pay for trash."

Recycling does reduce trash costs, says Jim Jones, Waste Management's business development manager. But for many cities, falling trash prices can't make up the extra recycling fees.

Recycling markets are fickle and Waste Management sometimes has a hard time finding buyers for recyclables. Often, Utah has to ship recycled goods to places like California where there are more buyers, said Jones, which boosts Utah cost to recycle.

"You don't get into recycling to make money. Basically the reason people do it is because it's the right thing to do," Mertz said. "Everywhere we've implemented recycling the response has been incredible. People know it's the right thing to do and they want to do it."

But Utah clearly isn't there yet — throughout state, 18 landfills each accept 20 tons of trash every day. Landfilling is popular here because it's cheap, $22 a ton versus four times that for recycling.

Groundwater is tested beneath half of these big landfills, and the rest are exempt from this testing for various reasons. In Grand County for example, the landfill is built on a 5,000-foot layer of impermeable shale, so there is no groundwater within the dump's reach that can be contaminated.

"Our No. 1 concern with landfills and garbage is groundwater contamination," Bohn said. Methane gas emissions and rodent control are also major headaches for Bohn's department.

Four landfills — including a dump in Davis County operated by the same group that runs the incinerator there — have failed preliminary groundwater tests and are under close observation by state environmental officials.

In Washington County, Duchesne, the Trans-Jordan Landfill and Davis County, officials have discovered high levels of metals and organic elements, and inappropriate "water chemistry," Bohn said. All four sites are being assessed by the division.

In Spanish Fork, waterfowl living in Utah Lake marshland became sick in areas near its landfill turned master-planned community. Test results of water draining from the landfill into the wetlands show contamination. Arsenic. Lead. Chromium. Cadmium.

The state recognizes these concerns. Bohn says there are dozens of unlined landfills statewide that could allow poisonous leachate — groundwater contaminated by underground garbage — to seep into lakes, streams and drinking water.

"We do have landfills out there," Bohn said, "that are polluting and that have impacted the groundwater."

Dioxin and cancer

But landfills have not seen scrutiny like Wasatch Energy's incinerator.

Wasatch Energy has initiated some health-risk assessment tests and taken samples of from soil and a milk-producing goat nearby.

The tests, all funded by Wasatch Energy, are designed to ease public fears and prove the plant's dioxin emissions are not damaging the public health. The tests and health assessments, however, are written in scientific jargon and aren't well understood by the general public.

State Department of Air Quality director Rick Sprott has been central in Utah's dioxin debate. His department is criticized both by residents who say the state is too lax with Wasatch Energy and incinerator officials who say they are unfairly targeted. "There has been a lot of public concern," he said.

The brain cancer issue is two-fold: Is there a cancer cluster around the incinerator, and, if so, is dioxin to blame?

Evidence to support the first concern has streamed in from nearby residents. Love's list of 30 residents who say they have the same kind of brain cancer that Woolsey has is one example. But the Utah Department of Health and the Utah Cancer Registry, however, can't confirm such a claim.

According to the health department's bureau of epidemiology, a cancer cluster is, "three or more cases occurring within a certain location or geographical area and time period."

Despite the apparent frequency of gliosarcoma in Layton, state epidemiologist Keller says the health department has never been notified of the cluster. Her office is usually notified of such clusters by county health departments or individual residents.

Richard Harvey, former director of the Davis County Health Department and vice chairman of Wasatch Energy's board, said he never notified the state because he could never substantiate the existence of a cluster.

"We've examined these types of things in the past and our experience has been that there has not been the amount of problems that people make out," Harvey said.

However, Harvey's replacement, Lewis Garrett, who has no affiliation with Wasatch Energy and has been on the job only a month, has initiated an examination into brain cancer rates in Layton and Davis County. Garrett said he will begin looking at Utah Cancer Registry data and then expand his investigation.

Melanie St. Claire, another Layton resident, has also been in touch with residents in the area around the plant. "We just want someone to look into it," said St. Claire, who lives two miles from the plant.

"The plant has had all these failed tests. They clearly are dragging their feet," St. Claire said. "Something has to be done to see that this isn't the cause of this sickness."

E-MAIL: lucy@desnews.com ; bsnyder@desnews.com