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Polluting company agrees to buy $2M worth of cleaner buses for Utah schools

Federal settlement with Stericycle means cleaner air

The Stericycle medical waste incineration plant in North Salt Lake has been the target of recent protests by environmental advocacy groups, Thursday, May 30, 2013.
The Stericycle medical waste incineration plant in North Salt Lake is pictured in this May 30, 2013, file photo.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

NORTH SALT LAKE — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Friday it has reached a settlement with a company incinerating medical waste in North Salt Lake that violated pollution laws, which led to an outcry from affected residents.

The settlement means Stericycle must pay a $600,000 civil penalty and also conduct a “Supplemental Environmental Project” that requires the company to spend at least $2 million to purchase low-emitting school buses for a local school district in Utah.

“This settlement will benefit all who live in and visit North Salt Lake,” said EPA’s acting regional administrator Debra H. Thomas. “In addition to (nitrogen oxide) reductions at the facility, the settlement requires Stericycle to replace old, high-emitting school buses for a local school district, providing cleaner air for schoolchildren and nearby neighborhoods.”

The complaint alleged that Stericycle operated its waste incinerator in a manner that exceeded regulatory limits for nitrogen oxides, failed to properly conduct stack tests and failed to comply with reporting requirements. EPA investigated the alleged violations in cooperation with the Utah Division of Air Quality, which concluded its own action for related violations several years ago.

“Medical waste incinerators must operate in strict compliance with our nation’s clean air laws,” said Jean E. Williams, deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.

“Stericycle has installed new pollution controls and made operational changes to remedy the violations alleged in the complaint.”

Stericycle incinerates medical waste that includes pathological streams, trace chemotherapy and nonhazardous pharmaceutical waste from clients such as hospitals and nursing homes.

At its North Salt Lake location, residents and clean air activists for years pushed to get the incineration facility to leave the neighborhoods built up around it. That push gained momentum after the state issued its highest monetary fine in history — $2.3 million — against the company for air pollution-related violations.

Uproar over the company’s actions even prompted activist Erin Brockovich to get involved. Brockovich, an anti-pollution crusader, inspired a movie in her own name played by actress Julia Roberts.

Regulators first suspected irregularities in late 2011 and throughout 2012 during a series of three stack tests to determine the level and nature of pollutants released from the plant. Tests are supposed to be conducted at the maximum production or combustion rate and reflect normal, operational variances.

According to the division, the company 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 also said they believed the company’s logs were manipulated to show compliance with operating conditions.

As part of the agreement, Stericycle agreed to relocate to Tooele County but ultimately found the move financially nonviable and planned to leave Utah.