Stericycle shutters its North Salt Lake plant after 33 years of incinerating medical waste

Activists hail the demise of one of Utah’s most notorious polluters as a victory for citizen activism, but some ask why it took so long.

(Keith Johnson | Tribune File Photo) Stericycle's North Salt Lake medical-waste incinerator shut down Friday after years of controversy over the plant's emissions in a growing part of Davis County. Regulators slapped the waste processor with $5 million in fines for exceeding emission limits and conducting invalid stack tests. Photographed January 21, 2014.

After 33 years of burning Utah’s medical waste on the edge of growing Davis County subdivisions, Stericycle’s North Salt Lake incinerator closed for good on Friday, dropping the curtain on a drawn-out drama over the company’s alleged failure to control toxic emissions and efforts to cover it up.

Before being forced to upgrade its operations several years ago, the plant’s emissions-control equipment sometimes went offline during power outages, resulting in conspicuous black plumes over the Foxboro neighborhood, according to residents.

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) later discovered the plant was exceeding its emission limits and had rigged stack tests to give a false impression the plant was in compliance with its permit. That led to a record $2.3 million fine against Stericycle in 2014 and an agreement to move the incinerator to a sparsely populated part of Tooele County.

When that plan fell through in 2019, DEQ put Stericycle on notice to cease incineration in Utah within three years. Its permit to burn waste expired on July 1, according to DEQ spokesman Matt McPherson.

For Alicia Connell, that day should have come a lot sooner.

“I’m grateful to see this company will no longer be harming our children,” said Connell, a one-time Foxboro resident and mom who led the battle against the incinerator. “Utah is all about doing good business. This was not good business. This was them taking advantage of Utah not monitoring everything they do every minute.”

A real estate broker who later moved to Farmington, Connell has retained close ties to the Foxboro community and later went to the Legislature on its behalf to advocate for changes in the law, forcing Stericycle to make operational changes.

While the incineration has stopped, Stericycle continues to own and operate the plant as a collection and transportation station to service healthcare customers throughout the greater Salt Lake region, according to Stericycle.

In a prepared statement, the company noted that it was cited only once in its 33-year presence in Utah for emissions violations and it cooperated with the state and federal investigations. It now takes compliance more seriously across its operations.

“Stericycle, under new leadership, has aggressively pursued excellence in its compliance program over the past several years across the entire company, including significant investments in enhanced team member training programs, new facility equipment, the development of expanded standard operating procedures, internal and external auditing programs, and other tools for environmental compliance management,” the statement read.

A global processor of medical waste and biohazardous material, the Illinois-based company has operations in every state and 16 other countries, but operates incinerators in only a handful of locations.

The company told The Tribune that its services are essential — often legally required — and “helps mitigate the spread of infection, helps keep untreated pharmaceuticals out of drinking water, and helps protect healthcare workers and communities.”

Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE), credited citizen activists like Connell for bringing the government and public’s attention to the threat medical incineration posed to Utah.

“After years of town hall meetings, protest rallies, meetings with the governor and state officials, criminal investigations, and even a march led by Erin Brockovich, public health protection has finally won a hard-fought victory in North Salt Lake,” Moench said in a statement Tuesday. “Make no mistake, it was citizen activism that forced the state and the federal government to put enough pressure on Stericycle that shutting down their incinerator was their only viable option.”

Following Utah’s record fine, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted its own enforcement action, resulting in another $2.6 million in assessments last year. Most of that money went to help the Davis County School District buy low-emissions buses.

“Medical waste incinerators must operate in strict compliance with our nation’s clean air laws,” said Jean Williams, deputy assistant U.S. attorney general for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “Stericycle has installed new pollution controls and made operational changes to remedy the violations alleged in the complaint.”

What troubled Connell and others was Stericycle’s reluctance to willingly upgrade its plant despite intense public pressure.

The incineration of medical waste is a harmful and unnecessary practice, according to UPHE.

“It only served to spread toxins throughout the community and even created new ones,” said executive director Jonny Vasic. “Allowing Stericycle its original permit in 1989 was controversial at the time, but it became dramatically more so in the last 15 years.”

When Stericycle began operating in North Salt Lake, there were few homes near the site at 90 N. 1100 West. Over the years, however, homes and schools developed right up to the property boundary and a major trailhead to the Legacy Parkway bike path was built nearby.

What was once an isolated spot, has long since become a neighborhood with an industrial incinerator in its midst.

Instead of cleaning up plant operations as more people moved into the area, according to Connell and environmental activists, Stericycle allowed power outages to disrupt its equipment, releasing smoke laden with dangerous substances into the neighborhood.

Backup power systems could have minimized these “upset” events, which were occurring as often as every other week, but Stericycle would not agree to install them, Connell said.

“The technology was old and outdated and clearly they were not interested in making things better without being forced to,” she said. “They weren’t willing to sit down to discuss making things better.”

With help from then-Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, Connell pressed the Utah Legislature to mandate upgrades at waste incinerators that have since helped limit emissions at Stericycle.

“They were finding loopholes so they could burn things they shouldn’t be burning,” Connell said. “They could have added battery backup themselves. I shouldn’t have had to go to the Legislature and fight for two years to get them to do it.”