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What's Burning in the Backyard: Stericycle and the Foxboro Neighborhood

This feature story looks at how the Foxboro neighborhood of North Salt Lake City became aware of the pollution emitted from a medical waste incinerator next door, and investigates how the housing development was permitted to be built next to the incinerator.

Through a thorough review of planning commission and city council meeting minutes, the story uncovered that the incinerator was originally intended to be far from residents, and while approving its permit, city leaders assured residents that homes would not be built there because it was not part of the city plan.

The story found that North Salt Lake City’s current mayor was the Chief Financial Officer for the developer that built the homes next to the incinerator. He was also on the city planning commission that approved the zoning change required to build homes on that land. In addition, the story revealed that another member of the planning commission was a consultant for the land-owners who wanted to sell the land. The investigation did not uncover any corruption or illegal activity, but it did uncover conflict-of-interest, and raised the question of whether the process of approving the zoning change put the interests of business before prudent planning and the safety of residents.

The story came to KUER’s attention in the spring of 2013, when the state Division of Air Quality (DAQ) revealed that tests had found Stericycle’s incinerator to be out of compliance with emission standards and the DAQ suspected that the company had been falsifying emissions tests. Nearby residents became increasingly concerned, and began insisting the incinerator be shut down, enlisting the help of high profile environmental activist Erin Brockovich and her team of investigators to bring attention to the issue. If residents were so unhappy with the situation, KUER wanted to know how the Foxboro neighborhood came to be built around this incinerator. Why did city leaders rezone the land to allow homes to be built there? What did they know about the risks? And why weren’t neighbors informed when they bought their homes?

KUER started by reading meeting minutes from city council and planning commission meeting minutes dating back to 1989 when an incinerator was first permitted on the land, and up to 2002 when a rezone of the land was approved. That took many hours, but within the minutes, we found the commissioners and city leaders we wanted to question further. While Stericycle’s incinerator has been covered widely by many local media outlets, we uncovered voices that no one had yet talked to. Since the story originated out of documents, we decided that using two narrators would keep the audience engaged in a complex story that spans more than two decades. In the end, it was a unique contribution to the media coverage of a highly charged issue, one that brought public officials to account for decisions made years ago, but continue to have consequences today.

The story aired shortly before municipal elections, and was intended to reveal decisions city leaders had made, so that citizens could make informed choices.