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Governor orders criminal probe, workplace safety investigation of Stericycle

NORTH SALT LAKE — Stericycle critics say a three-pronged probe of the medical waste incineration facility announced by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's office Thursday is a positive development and an indication that the state is taking the allegations surrounding the company seriously.

"The caveat is that this needs to be moved along as quickly as possible because every day that this operation continues to function, it is really putting at risk the many people who live in North Salt Lake around the facility," said Tim Wagner, executive director of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.

"We urge the governor and the state to push this investigation through as quickly as they can."

Herbert's office ordered a multi-agency review of the North Salt Lake plant, including a review by investigators under Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes who will look for evidence of any criminal activity.

The announcement came the same afternoon that critics planned a rally demanding action by the governor's office to close the only remaining medical waste incineration facility in the West.

Wagner said ultimately that remains the goal of the groups — and a pending move by Stericycle to Tooele County remains an unacceptable answer to their concerns.

"But if the state has to obtain more hard evidence to take action against them, that is part of the process," Wagner added.

Stericycle spokeswoman Jennifer Koenig said Thursday that the company was not notified in advance of the governor's announcement, which she believes was pushed by "innacurate and unfounded" allegations.

"We believe that we have been operating our facility in compliance with applicable regulations," Koenig said. "However, Stericycle is a company that takes safety and compliance issues very seriously. Accordingly, we have been cooperating with local regulators over the past few weeks, and we will continue to cooperate fully with other state agencies as they conduct their investigations."

Koenig reiterated the extensive scrutiny and inspections maintained by 15 regulatory agencies at Stericycle, which the company complies with. An investigation ordered by the governor and completed by the Utah Department of Health following allegations last year turned up no public health risks, she said.

But Rob Longoria, who stood in his backyard and watched smoke pour out of Stericycle's stacks on Thursday, remains unconvinced. It smells like burnt plastic, he says.

"If you can smell it, you're breathing it," he said. "You can see it's burning all the time. They don't ever shut down the incinerator. … You can smell the plastic burning so you know they're burning medical waste."

Longoria hates to keep his 4-year-old son inside the house, but fears he'll need to as long as the plant is operational.

"(We're concerned) about his long-term health. We don't really know what's going to happen five or 10 years down the road," Longoria said.

This latest series of investigations began after allegations were brought to the governor's office last week by Stericycle critics that include the physicians group and Communities for Clean Air.

Representatives met with Herbert's environmental policy adviser, Alan Matheson, to address concerns raised by a whistleblower's videotaped interview that aired on EnviroNews.

In the segment, the disguised man — an alleged former employee of the plant — claimed a female supervisor knowingly ordered bags of radioactive material incinerated in violation of state law.

The man also alleged that volumes of the material being incinerated were deliberately misrepresented and that truckloads of medical waste sat in the parking lot, jeopardizing workers and the nearby Davis County community.

In the announcement, Herbert's office said protecting the health and safety of the public is the "governor's primary concern," and the Sept. 17 meeting prompted the investigation.

The state Department of Environmental Quality is looking into regulatory violations surrounding Stericycle's permit beyond what is already alleged to have taken place in a violation issued in May of 2013.

In addition, Herbert's office asked the Utah Labor Commission to determine if there have been potential violations of occupational safety and health standards that would endanger workers at the site.

By calling on the attorney general’s office to open a criminal investigation, Herbert's office said the state will be able to conduct a more extensive review of the company's actions.

Over the past few months, according to the press release issued by Herbert's office, the state Department of Environmental Quality has increased its compliance inspections at the plant, which are now conducted daily.

In 2013, the regulatory violation issued by the state asserts the company failed a stack test in December 2011 and went beyond its permitted emissions limits. After repeated and failed negotiations among regulators and company officials, the case was transferred for review by an administrative law judge, who is expected to decide whether the allegations have merit and, if so, what penalties may be attached.

In a separate review, the Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a criminal probe based on allegations that the company manipulated its operational logs to misrepresent the volume of the material it handled during an inspection of the paperwork.

With these latest investigations, Herbert has asked that they be completed as soon as possible.

Legislation to facilitate a move by the company to Tooele County was passed by lawmakers earlier this year and endorsed by Herbert. It includes a residential buffer zone, but the planned location — on school trust lands — is a 40-acre parcel with the nearest home situated 11 miles away.

Company officials have said $1.5 million worth of upgrades that have recently been installed at the North Salt Lake plant will result in a reduction of six pollutants by up to 90 percent. The upgrades were to come into compliance with federal requirements of the Clean Air Act.

Those pollutants will be reduced even more at the plant in Tooele County, according to the company.

Stericycle has said it is launching its own investigation as a result of the whistleblower's complaints.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com, Twitter: amyjoi16