After a tumultuous 33-year history that included significant fines from the Utah Division of Air Quality and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as well as a failed relocation to Tooele County, Stericycle last month ended its waste incineration operations in North Salt Lake.
"This is a happy day," said Clearfield resident Natasha Hincks. "All of the community that showed up every time, you know, it took a lot of hard work from a lot of people and it's exciting to see this finally happen."
Hicks said she moved from North Salt Lake to the Clearfield area largely due to the pollution she was subjected to while living near the Stericycle facility.
Stericycle incinerates medical waste that includes pathological streams, trace chemotherapy and nonhazardous pharmaceutical waste from clients such as hospitals and nursing homes.
Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment on Wednesday held a press conference in front of Stericycle's facility to celebrate the closure of the incinerator.
"It's been a long fight," said Jonny Vasic, executive director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. "Incineration of medical waste was a bad idea right from the beginning. It only served to spread toxins throughout the community and even created new ones."
According to the advocacy group that is made up of 400 medical professionals in Utah, the incineration of medical waste can increase rates of serious diseases like cancer, endocrine and immune disorders, infertility and birth defects for people living as far as four miles away from the pollution source.
"For 33 years, Stericycle poured out of their smokestack a witches brew of many of the most toxic substances known to science," said Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.
According to the World Health Organization, the incineration of medical waste can generate dioxins, furans, lead, mercury and cadmium.
With Utah's growth, subdivisions have been expanding closer to Stericycle's facility and the backyards of Foxboro homes can be seen nestled up against Stericycle's fence line.
In 2013, a video of a Stericycle bypass event surfaced (a bypass event is when emissions are released to protect equipment inside the facility), angering local residents and thrusting them into action.
The outrage over this pollution led to community mobilization and protests calling for Stericycle to cease operations.
Following the surfacing of the video, state air quality regulators documented instances where the incinerator allegedly exceeded its emission limits and rigged stack tests in violation of its state permit, prompting a $2.3 million fine by the Utah Division of Air Quality.
Eight years later in 2021, the EPA announced that it had reached a settlement with Stericycle over violated pollution laws, ordering the company to pay a $600,000 civil penalty and also conduct a "supplemental environmental project" that required the company to spend at least $2 million to purchase low-emitting school buses for a local school district in Utah.
Though Stericycle is halting its incineration operations, it isn’t closing completely and there will still be activity at the facility.
"Stericycle proudly remains part of the North Salt Lake Community. While we ceased operation of our hospital, medical and infectious waste Incinerator services on June 30, 2022, at this location, we continue to own and operate the site as a collection and transportation facility, employing approximately 20 team members to service health care customers throughout the greater Salt Lake region,” Stericycle said in an email.
“Approximately an additional 20 team members who worked at the North Salt Lake facility have been impacted, with half accepting alternate roles with Stericycle and half accepting severance packages. This change to our operations has been planned for several years."
The statement continued, saying, “As demand for medical waste management in the United States continues to increase, driven largely by growing health care needs, Stericycle has sought relocation to account for the infrastructure needed to expand our capacity. We look forward to continuing to help the health care industry address complex medical waste disposal challenges in a safe and responsible manner, both in the North Salt Lake community and across all communities where we operate.”
Moench echoed Hincks' sentiments of Stericycle ceasing incineration operations being a happy day for the community.
"This is a celebration not just of Stericycle closing, but of the power of citizen involvement, outrage and activism," Moench said.