Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has agreed to meet this month with activists and concerned residents who are agitating to close medical waste incinerator Stericycle.
The group rallied outside the governor’s office Thursday, asking the state to fine Stericycle, shut it down and reject its proposal to move to state lands in Tooele County.
"We’ve said from the beginning that we don’t want to give our problems to somebody else," said Alicia Connell, a resident of the North Salt Lake neighborhood that abuts the Stericycle property. "Incineration is old, outdated and simply unnecessary since there are several alternative technologies that can process waste with zero emissions."
Companies marketing those technologies were also at the Capitol Thursday shopping around for a lawmaker to sponsor legislation to incentivize area hospitals and businesses to switch to "greener" waste-disposal systems.
Dwight Morgan, CEO of Sterimed, said his company is in talks with the University of Utah’s hospital and clinics, which contract with Stericycle to dispose of some of their chemotherapy waste but sought bids from competitors.
Utah should stop caving in to Stericycle and start encouraging adoption of newer, cleaner technologies, said protester Natasha Hincks, who lives near the incinerator. "This is a company that was caught over-polluting by up to 40 percent, manipulating their records and is currently under federal investigation. Stericycle shouldn’t be rewarded for their bad behavior."
Herbert ordered a multi-faceted investigation into possible health impacts associated with the Stericycle incinerator after the state Division of Air Quality alleged the incinerator’s emissions breached its permitted limits. The Illinois-based company is contesting the state’s notice of violation.
Public health officials found elevated rates of some types of cancer in the communities surrounding the incinerator, but could not link the cancer to environmental exposures.
"These cancers are all highly preventable through lifestyle choices and regular health screenings," explained one of the report’s authors.
Protesters objected to that statement, spotlighting three cases of childhood leukemia in the neighborhood. "To say you can avoid these types of cancer by being a non-smoker, by living a healthy lifestyle, and by avoiding sun exposure is insane," said Connell, holding photos of the children with shaven heads undergoing chemotherapy.
Clean-air advocate Brian Moench with Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment doesn’t question the motives behind the study, but disagrees with its conclusions.
Air pollution — specifically toxins emitted by Stericycle, including Dioxin and lead — is a known carcinogen, he said.
"Most solid cancers take decades to develop and Stericycle has only been in operation for about 24 years and neighborhoods were not built nearby until about 10 years ago," he said, noting any short-term cancer study would be incomplete and inconclusive.
Nevertheless, investigators did find elevated cancer risk, even among a population that, according to the study, had fewer lifestyle-associated risks than the rest of the state, Moench said. "Their rate of smoking was 50 percent less, and with that alone one would have expected lower cancer rates in that group, but that certainly wasn’t what was found."
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