In response to growing concerns about a North Salt Lake medical waste incinerator, Gov. Gary Herbert on Thursday ordered an investigation into the potential health impacts of its toxic emissions.
In letters to Stericycle Inc. and local officials, Herbert revealed that he has directed the Utah Department of Health to carry out a three-tiered study that includes an analysis of soil samples around Stericycle's plant, as well as a look into the effects of the incinerator's dioxin and furan releases.
Although the probe falls short of calls to shutter the plant, the governor's action indicates he is serious about wielding his authority to ensure the company lives up to its rhetoric and commitments.
"At this time, there are no documented ongoing violations at the plant," the governor wrote in the letter to the Salt Lake County Council. "However, to the fullest extent of the law and in accordance with due process, Stericycle will be held accountable for past violations."
In May, the Utah Division of Air Quality issued notices of violation, accusing Stericycle of exceeding the emission limits set in its permits and rigging a stack test. The company denies the allegations, which are not the subject of an administrative review.
Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, had a series of questions Thursday about the investigation. He said that to know if the Health Department investigation would be effective, he would need to know who would be working on it, how they would do it and what methodology they would use. Moench also said the investigating team should include medical doctors, not just toxicologists.
"There's kind of a growing gap between how physicians view the danger of environmental contaminants versus toxicologists," Moench said.
The difference, Moench explained, has to do with dosage. Toxicologists tend to see danger only in high dosages of contaminants, while physicians tend to believe that even small quantities of poisons can be dangerous. The investigation needs to include people who have the latter view, Moench said.
He added that, despite the investigation, he still wants to see an end to medical waste incineration, which he said is recognized worldwide as an inappropriate method of disposal.
"If they move the facility or build a new one," he said, "that really doesn't address the problem."
Alicia Connell agreed. Connell co-founded the local grass-roots group Communities for Clean Air and said that there are other, better ways than incineration to dispose of medical waste.
"We don't want an incinerator period," Connell said. "If it were going the way I wanted to, the incinerator would be off right now."
Still, Connell praised Herbert's decision to order the investigation. She is glad the state is taking the threat of the facility seriously, adding that "it's about time Stericycle is being held accountable." Much like Moench, Connell expects the results of the study to be determined by how seriously it is taken and what methods are used.
"We're concerned that soil sampling is not enough," she added.
Stericyle sets fire to medical waste that it accepts from seven states. The Illinois-based company has signaled to local leaders it is looking for a new site for the incineration plant away from Davis and Salt Lake counties. Community activists and public-health advocates contend the incinerator poses a threat regardless of whether it operates within the limits of its state permits.
Neighbors of the plant have been campaigning for months to get the incinerator shut down, even drawing environmentalist Erin Brockovich to their cause.
Meanwhile, University of Utah Health Sciences recently announced that it is rethinking the practice of sending out its waste for incineration.