In the face of mounting community opposition, a medical waste handler is exploring how to move its controversial incinerator out of North Salt Lake, according to city and state officials.
While the incinerator’s foes welcomed the development as "an improvement," one said he would prefer Stericycle Inc. quit burning in Utah altogether.
"It shows they are not entirely tone deaf to the community. But on the other hand they are hanging onto a business model that is badly out of date," said Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. "Waste incineration, especially for medical waste, is really an anachronism. It is not appropriate from any standpoint."
Although it has been burning waste here for two decades, the Stericycle plant has become a flash point in Utah’s air quality battles in recent months after allegations surfaced that the incinerator’s emissions have breached limits set in its state-issued permit.
Now that the plant is surrounded by a new subdivision, the Illinois-based firm, which operates 170 facilities around the country, recognizes it is time to operate in a less-populated area, said North Salt Lake Mayor Len Arave.
"They have to find a site that is workable and they are in the process of finding a site. They don’t like their current site," Arave said. "You never want to see jobs lost, but it really is an unworkable situation."
Rep. Becky Edwards affirmed Stericylce’s interest in leaving the community she represents in the Utah House.
"They are definitely serious about moving," said the Republican lawmaker. "They are not happy where they are."
Arave and Edwards were not sure when and where the plant, which employs 55, would go. It currently occupies 90 N. 1100 West, with homes abutting the property on two sides.
Under a recent rezone, these former agricultural lands are heading in a residential rather than industrial direction.
"We have a different vision for what we want this part of the city to look like," Arave said. "We have incompatible uses that are close together."
Foxboro residents and other activists pressured Gov. Gary Herbert to use his executive authority to close the plant last month after a "bypass" event released black smoke into the neighborhood for several minutes one evening.
"There are a number of options being discussed right now. The governor is most concerned about what is best for the people of Utah," Herbert’s deputy chief of staff Ally Isom said in an e-mail Tuesday.
A call to Stericycle’s corporate headquarters was not returned. The company is contesting allegations by state regulators that the Utah incinerator has violated emission limits and rigged a stack test.
As part of failed settlement talks last summer, the company conceded moving would solve conflicts with the neighborhood, according to Division of Air Quality director Bryce Bird. But a move would require new solid waste and air quality permits, not modifications of existing permits, and Stericycle has yet to apply for these, Bird said.
In a prepared statement last month, company officials said the plant "is completely safe and operated in full compliance with" state air quality standards.
But critics claim the plant’s emissions are not safe whether or not they comply with the permit. Moving the plant off the Wasatch Front might make the problem less visible, but it won’t solve it, Moench and others argue.
"None of the groups involved are at all satisfied with just the gesture to move. They don’t want another community affected the way they have," said Moench. "The emissions from any incinerator can go virtually hundreds of miles. Incineration itself is the problem, not just where it’s located."
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