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Editorial: Medical waste incinerators should be made to prove their worth
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It can make it harder to argue against an oil refinery if you like to drive your car. It can make it harder to argue against a power plant — coal or nuclear — if you like to turn on your lights.

But arguing against a medical waste incinerator in your neighborhood — or anywhere — becomes a lot easier if you accept the premise that it is not one of the things we have to put up with to enjoy the benefits of modern life.

Utah state officials should consider that possibility very seriously if and when they are asked to approve new locations for the very unpopular Stericycle facility that now sits in North Salt Lake.

While the company has been mum, state and local officials were out the other day with word that the owners of the medical waste incinerator, which has recently come under increasing attack from neighbors and public health advocates, have taken the hint and are preparing to relocate. Whether that relocation would be within Utah, presumably to a less-populated area, or somewhere else altogether is not known.

The move, if it happens, would apparently be the result of increasing protests over the plant's reported failures, which have on occasion allowed more hazardous chemicals to float into the air than its state permit allows. Gov. Gary Herbert has expressed concern, but says he lacks the power to take any immediate action, up to or including an immediate shutdown of the facility, as sought by neighbors, scientists and the Salt Lake County Council.

Meanwhile, the people who run the University of Utah's large health care system have said they will start looking into alternatives to having their biologically risky waste burned at Stericycle. Those alternatives include sterilizing the waste, a small portion of the total trash medical facilities generate each day, on site and sending it to the landfill with the rest of their garbage.

Industrial and environmental regulation is commonly built around the idea of any function being carried out in the least hazardous way possible, using the most up-to-date technology available. The rub often comes over the question of whether existing facilities should be expected to upgrade, forced to change only as part of an expansion or just be grandfathered in to operate as long as their owners can make a go of it.

If Stericycle, or anyone else, wants to build a new medical waste incinerator anywhere in Utah, those seeking the permit should bear the full burden of proving not only that their planned facility is safe, but also that it is even needed.

Time to check out other methods
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