Local residents took to the pulpit Saturday at a grassroots town hall meeting where they voiced their objection to Stericycle’s relocation proposal — a piece of legislation many denounced as a hasty, underhanded effort to push an unloved incinerator onto Tooele County.
About 30 residents attended the meeting, which was hosted and moderated by Tooele County Citizens for Clean Air, an online group that has amassed 250 followers since its creation on Feb. 22.
Though the Utah State House of Representatives had originally planned to vote last Friday on the joint resolution that would permit Stericycle to move forward with the relocation process, Rep. Doug Sagers, R-Tooele, said the house chose to delay the vote temporarily to hear what Tooele County residents had to say.
Both Sagers and Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, attended the meeting, as did Tooele County Commissioner Shawn Milne and other local officials. A handful of representatives from Stericycle, the Illinois-based company that hopes to relocate its North Salt Lake medical waste incinerator to Rowley, were also present.
After a brief presentation by Stericycle officials, Jewel Allen, the Grantsville resident who founded Tooele County Citizens for Clean Air, opened a public comment period with a statement urging lawmakers to delay Stericycle’s move to Tooele County by voting against the joint resolution in the house.
“I feel that HJR6 is rushed, reckless legislation that is primarily aimed at rescuing a company that has not shown, through their track record, a pending federal investigation, nor in their unsubstantiated promises of economic and environmental boon, that they will be a good asset to Tooele County,” she said. “I care about this beautiful land that drew my family here 13 years ago. To rush this bill through without all the facts on the table is a gross injustice.”
Residents who stood to comment echoed similar concerns.
“We need the business, but we need to be safe about it,” said Kendall Thomas, a member of the Stockton City Council. “Let’s get all the facts on the table.”
Kim Clausing, a Stansbury resident and a public health employee, said she felt that bringing in a highly-regulated incinerator at a time of financial crisis could be a mistake.
Budget cuts at the state and county levels have prevented environmental agencies from patrolling and monitoring regulated businesses, she said, and violations have slipped through the cracks as a consequence of those budget cuts.
“The checks and balances get left out when there are financial constraints on things,” Clausing said.
However, Sagers denied those allegations, and said that he would push for a budget increase for the state department of air quality if and when the department came to him and indicated they were short on funds.
Another Stockton resident, Matt McCarty, said that in light of the company’s reluctance to share information with the public, he thought it would be better to “defeat the measure now and give it more time.”
“There seems to be a tight circle of people they are willing to talk to,” he said, “and they haven’t taken advantages of opportunities to communicate to a broader audience.”
Though Jennifer Koenig, Stericycle’s vice president of corporate communications, apologized for the company’s failure to reach out to residents and promised to be more involved in the future, McCarty said that because Stericycle waited until the issue showed up in the press, he believed that it was possible the company was trying to cover something up.
Additionally, he said, he worried about local officials’ reluctance to communicate with the public about the relocation.
It looked as though the company and government officials viewed this as a situation “where the elites will determine the fate of the unwashed masses,” he said.
Though most residents at the meeting opposed the relocation, Jeff McNeil, a resident of Erda, spoke in favor of the company’s proposal.
“This is an industry that is necessary,” he said. “I guess our pioneer ancestors just took [medical waste] up South Willow Canyon and threw it in a ditch.”
Moving Stericycle to the Rowley area will afford the state the opportunity to dispose of medical waste “in a better way, in a better place that isn’t in someone’s backyard,” he said.
After the meeting, McNeil explained that he felt this was an opportunity for Tooele County to provide a necessary service for all Utahns.
“I think that the West Desert is a natural resource that we ought to use,” he said. “It’s a good place for this kind of business.”
While those against the relocation debated with Sagers and Nelson, and with Stericycle company officials, the majority of attendees remained silent. One of those quiet members of the audience, Stansbury resident Mel Sweat, said he had come to the meeting with the intent of educating himself about the company, rather than debating the relocation.
“I came because I’m not educated enough to have an opinion,” he said. “There’s two extremes — those who hate Stericycle and don’t want them to come, and the company itself. Truth is somewhere in between.”