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Who sends trash, taxpayer dollars to Stericycle?

Published March 4, 2014 8:51 am

Environment • Airlines spend thousands of dollars to dispose of trash from international flights.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Three times a week, a dozen or more yellow drums show up at Stericycle's North Salt Lake incinerator, where the contents are converted to smoke and ash for permanent disposal in the atmosphere and ground.

But these containers from Salt Lake City International Airport do not hold the infectious and chemically tainted medical wastes Stericycle is known for handling. They are filled with meal leftovers, candy wrappers, food service articles and other items that tourists returning from locales from Puerto Vallarta and Paris leave on planes.

To protect U.S. agriculture from foreign pathogens and pests, airlines' international trash is heavily regulated and must be incinerated in most cases. Accordingly, Stericycle burns about 8,000 pounds of airline garbage a month, at an average cost of $4,700, according to billing records.

The airport is one of several Utah public entities that contract with the global medical-waste management company to get rid of trash that isn't always related to medical care. The Utah County jail, Salt Lake County Animal Services and the Davis County Health Department are among Utah agencies contracting with Stericycle, according to billing records.

Deliveries from Salt Lake City • Among them, Salt Lake City conducts the most business with Stericycle — more than even the vast health care network of the University of Utah.

The city's monthly tab includes $1,600 to take biohazardous stuff from the police evidence room.

Twice a month, Stericycle visits the Salt Lake City police evidence room to haul away suspects' clothes stained with blood, vomit, sputum and other excretions that constitute a biohazard, as well as urine samples and vials, syringes and sharps used in blood draws, according to department spokeswoman Lara Jones.

The police send no drugs to Stericyle, she said. Old pharmaceuticals gathered from residents and narcotics seized from lawbreakers go to Wasatch Integrated Waste Management District's incinerator in Layton.

The city's total annual tab varies, but it has paid Stericycle about $250,000 during the past three years.

Airport trash makes up the majority of the city's total, and that cost is recouped when the city bills airlines for the service.

The U.'s tab • U. hospitals and clinics use Stericycle services for a narrow purpose — disposing of gloves, gowns, tubing and IV bags that hold trace amounts of cancer-fighting chemotherapy agents. Under state regulations, incineration is the only option for such waste, which should not be buried because of the threat it poses to groundwater, said Kathryn Wilets, a U. spokeswoman.

Critics who argue Stericycle's incinerator emits dangerous pollutants over Davis County are pressuring the U. to stop doing business with the company.

Last year, the U. paid $30,167 to Stericycle for taking trace chemo waste, according to Wilets. Its research facilities paid the company much more, about $44,000 last year, for disposing of biological waste, material that has little do with health care.

The university will soon be spending even less. U. officials plan to purchase an autoclave to sterilize the research waste, which would then be sent to a landfill.

But Wilets stressed that for some waste, incineration remains the best disposal option.

"We are eliminating a huge chunk of what we send to Stericycle," Wilets said. "We have to balance these concerns with Stericycle and we are stewards of public funds so we always have to look at costs."

The U., meanwhile, is a far bigger customer of Clean Harbors Environmental Services, which operates a hazardous waste incinerator in Tooele County. This facility charges the U. $130 per 55-gallon drum — versus the $30 Stericycle charges — to dispose of federally regulated chemicals and medications, including partial chemo doses and experimental drugs.

Billings for the U.'s medical and research waste topped $280,000 last year, nearly 10 times the amount paid to Stericyle.

Stericycle's next move • Stericycle came under fire last year after state regulators disclosed that its North Salt Lake plant violated emission limits for dioxin and other pollutants during tests in December 2011. The company is contesting the allegations, but has promised to upgrade emission controls and relocate its operations off the populated Wasatch Front.

According to recent testimony at the Utah Legislature, it plans to buy a 40-acre parcel for $350,000 on state land in Tooele County. Stericycle is to put 10 percent down, then pay the balance once it lines up state and local approvals needed to operate an incinerator at the site.

But the controversy has not subsided. Activists are calling on Gov. Gary Herbert to shut down the incinerator and recently released test results of dust samples taken from the attics of four homes near it.

The closest house showed dioxin levels about 15 times what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would expect to find in a home near an industrial site, according to activist Alicia Connell, whose former home was among those tested.

The samples were gathered Jan. 25 by a team associated with celebrity activist Erin Brockovich. Results indicated there were lower dioxin concentrations the farther the homes were from the plant.

What's incinerated? • Stericycle officials have been steadfast that the plant does not threaten public health and that it burns only waste where incineration is the best and sometimes only option — nonhazardous pharmaceuticals, trace chemo and "infectious waste," a class that includes body parts and tissue.

And innocuous-looking airline trash that arrives every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Lest a bug hitch a ride into the United States on a piece of lettuce, the U.S. Department of Agriculture treats passenger garbage from international flights as a biological threat. Regulations apply not just to food, but the service materials, wrappers and anything co-mingled with this trash. Beverage containers and newspapers are not regulated, but only as long as they were segregated and had no contact with food. The airport hired Stericycle to process this regulated waste and a 2007 contract specifies that it is incinerated. Federal regulations allow this waste to be sterilized instead of burned, but Stericycle's nearest autoclave is too far away.

Salt Lake City doesn't see a lot of international airline traffic, but enough to generate nearly 50 tons of annual business for Stericycle. This month the airport hosts 16 international arrivals a week, five from Paris and the rest from Mexico, including six from Los Cabos. Most are operated by Delta Air Lines.

bmaffly@sltrib.com

What public agencies spend at Stericycle

Salt Lake City's total billings for 2011 through 2013 were $234,189. Here are fiscal year 2013 billings to several public entities:

Davis County (health department) $8,985

Weber County (health department) $3,107

Utah County (jail) $2,022

Salt Lake County (animal services) $6,397

Salt Lake City (airport) $39,907

Salt Lake City (police) $10,704 (currently $1,629.43 a month, more than double from two years ago)

University of Utah (health care) $30,000

U. (research) $44,000

Sources: Utah Division of Finance, University of Utah