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Stericycle closes North Salt Lake incinerator, but eyes Nevada move

The Stericycle facility in North Salt Lake, July 13, 2022.
Jim Hill
The Stericycle facility in North Salt Lake, July 13, 2022.

Since 1992, Stericycle has operated a commercial medical waste incinerator in North Salt Lake, and it has a tumultuous history.

When the incinerator was originally built, it was located in a more industrial area that was separate from the community. However, over the years the area has developed, with people getting closer and closer to the plant. Eventually, there was a neighborhood right at the fence line of the facility.

Residents began complaining about thick clouds of black smoke billowing out of the smokestack at the plant.

Then in 2014, Stericycle had to pay a record $2.3 million fine.

Stericycle violated emissions limits and falsified test results. Bryce Bird, the director of the Division of Air Quality, said the waste material used during the test was different than the waste material that was normally burned at the facility. Since the violations went on for a period of time, the fine kept going up; fines can be up to $10,000 per day per violation.

Since 2014, the plant operated in compliance with emission standards, but after three decades, it closed on June 30, 2022.

Now, Stericycle is pursuing a permit to build two incinerators near Reno, Nevada. However, federal and state requirements have become more protective since the North Salt Lake one was built. The new incinerators should have newer and better technology.

“Any new incinerator would have to meet more stringent requirements because the technology has changed since that facility was originally constructed,” Bird said.

But some don’t think there should be any medical waste incinerators.

“Incineration was never the right way to handle medical waste. In fact, it’s not the right way to handle any kind of waste,” said Brian Moench, the president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. “The fact that Stericycle is moving on to a new location to do more incineration, that’s inappropriate, and we tried to stop that.”

The best way to dispose of medical waste is simply through a landfill, he said. Some hospital waste needs to be sterilized, but once it is, it can be landfilled.

Moench said the practice of burning waste started after hospital bags with used needles washed up on New Jersey beaches in the 1980s. Nationwide alarm led to incineration instead.

Burning the waste, however, doesn’t necessarily protect people from getting sick.

“None of the toxic compounds, chemicals and heavy metals are degraded, dissolved or disposed of with incineration. They’re just, in fact, redistributed throughout the community,” Moench said.

Another concern is that burning medical waste creates dioxins, a hazardous organic pollutant that can take a long time to break down, cause cancer and hurt the immune system

Brian Speer, the manager of the Solid Waste Section at the Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control, also said medical waste can be put in a landfill, like needles used for insulin. It just depends on if the materials are infectious or not.

“When it is an infectious waste, then it has to meet our requirements to be rendered noninfectious,” He said. “Then the waste can go just into a regular landfill.”

Hospitals also have the ability to treat some of their medical waste. Speer said if it is under a certain tonnage, hospitals can treat medical waste at their facilities and then dispose of it in the regular municipal solid waste landfill.

Once the waste is in a landfill, there are other regulations to protect it from harming the public. For example, Speer said if there is a big storm, there are protections to prevent groundwater contamination.

As for the closed Stericycle incinerator, some waste there may end up in a landfill anyway.

“As they dismantle the incinerator, pockets of ash may be located in some of the equipment,” Speer said. “The ash will be analyzed to determine that it’s safe to go to a regular municipal landfill.”

Though the incinerator is closed, Stericycle still owns and operates the North Salt Lake site as a collection and transportation facility.

Kristine Weller is a newsroom intern at KUER. She’s only been a journalist for a year but is excited to see what the future holds.
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