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But community and public health activists want Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to use his executive authority to shut down the plant, and they’re lobbying hospitals to stop contributing to the problem.
"They will start to see protests in front of their hospitals, which they probably don’t want," said Moench.
Cowley said Intermountain has taken steps to reduce pollution, including transitioning many of its delivery vehicles to natural gas. "Everyone is aware there are air-quality issues along Wasatch Front," he said.
But incineration is the only option for some waste, he said, citing a Utah law requiring that body parts "be disposed by incineration or interment in a location appropriate for human remains." Intermountain has interpreted "appropriate location" to mean a cemetery.
Scott Anderson, director of the Utah Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste, defines it as including landfills. "All of the waste that Stericycle handles could be buried," he said.
The benefit of burning is that it destroys the waste, Anderson said. "Whereas if it’s buried, someone still has it and they have to take care of it."
And should something happen to a landfill, such as it being sold or leachate entering an aquifer, surface water or drinking water, hospitals that generated the waste can be held liable, he said.
The U. uses Stericycle only for "residual chemotherapy" agents, about 40,000 pounds annually of such items as empty IV bags, tubing and contaminated gowns and gloves, said Greg Walters, the U.’s hazardous waste specialist. The relationship dates back to at least 1997, the university says.
Partial chemotherapy doses and experimental medications are shipped to Clean Harbors’ Aragonite facility in Tooele for incineration at hotter temperatures than Stericycle allows, Walters said.
The Aragonite facility is permitted differently than Stericycle, as a hazardous waste, not a solid waste, incinerator.
"Their kiln burns hotter and they have slew of scrubbers on their stacks," Walters said. They also charge three times more than Stericyle per 50-gallon drum of waste, he said.
Burying chemo waste is an option that would be less expensive than incineration, but it increases the risk of human exposure, he said. "People who [sterilize] it could be exposed and there may be some effluent [toxic chemicals] that go down the drain."
Weighing the trade-offs, environmental groups argue the balance falls in favor of landfills, especially in highly populated areas that struggle with air pollution.
Not all toxins are mitigated by incineration, including heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and dioxins, which are created through combustion, said Moench.
"The chemo-incineration argument completely ignores the fact that we are creating new toxic compounds that are horribly carcinogenic and redistributing them across the community in a way that they wouldn’t have been otherwise," said Moench. "There’s absolutely nothing compelling to argue it must be incinerated. ... I think it’s mainly that we’re doing this out of habit."
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