While legislative leaders and corporate officials wrestle over Stericycle’s proposed relocation to Tooele County, residents of two separate communities must cope with the medical waste incinerator’s uncertain future.
Representatives of both communities — Grantsville, the settlement closest to the proposed relocation site in Rowley, and Foxboro, the neighborhood immediately adjacent to the current incinerator in North Salt Lake — met face-to-face during a tour Tuesday at Stericycle’s current facility.
“She was a cheerful, silver-haired lady who was well-spoken and complimentary of the company and her fellow employees,” Grantsville resident Jewel Allen wrote on Facebook of the Foxboro resident and Stericycle employee who also joined the tour. “She did admit employee morale’s been a bit low, mainly about the uncertainty over their jobs and neighbor issues.”
Stericycle, an Illinois-based medical waste handler, came under fire late last year after the company was notified that its North Salt Lake incinerator had exceeded the amount of emissions the incinerator is permitted.
The company has attributed the violation, which it says was its first in 25 years, to a series of four equipment failures.
Though it has pledged to invest $1.5 million in retrofitting the current incinerator to ensure the company will meet new emissions standards by October, Stericycle has also appealed to the state legislature for permission to relocate its Salt Lake incinerator to Tooele County. That proposal passed a house committee meeting with unanimous support.
Stericycle officials invited Allen, who last week founded an online group for Tooele County residents with concerns about local air quality — and Stericycle’s potential impact on the area — to join the scheduled media tour at the North Salt Lake incinerator.
After showing Allen around the facility, Jennifer Koenig, vice president of corporate communications for Stericycle, asked her to share her specific concerns with the company.
“We feel a little shut out of the process,” Allen explained. “We just don’t have enough information to know that this is the best thing for our county.”
Selin Hoboy, Stericycle’s vice president of legislative and regulatory affairs, conceded that Stericycle has done “a pretty poor job of communicating,” but promised that the company would do better with outreach in the future.
Stericycle has already begun that process, Hoboy said, reaching out to organizations such as the Tooele County Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club.
Allen, however, was unimpressed.
“Their overtures appear aimed at softening community resistance to their move,” she wrote on her Facebook page, Tooele County Citizens for Clean Air. “I think their time would be better spent preparing facility information instead of figuring out which charities to support in a community that hasn’t given them the go signal yet.”
Hoboy also said the company will hold open houses for the public before it applied locally for a conditional use permit — a process she said the company will begin after receiving legislative approval, once it has begun drawing plans for a new Tooele County-based incinerator.
The company must also apply for permits from the state Department of Environmental Quality and approval from the governor’s office.
Allen also raised concerns about the company’s history of violations, asking whether Tooele County residents could trust a company that had surpassed its allotted emissions in the past.
“We’re going to do everything that we can to make sure that we are safe and compliant,” Hoboy said. “Because this is not fun for us either.”
Hoboy later invited Linda Garn, a current Stericycle employee and a long-time resident of the Foxboro neighborhood, to join the tour and speak about the company’s culture.
Garn, who works as a dispatcher and an ambassador to the surrounding communities, said Stericycle’s employees are like family, and that the company is heavily involved with the local food bank and other organizations, such as the Boy Scouts.
In general, Garn said, most of her neighbors had no problem with Stericycle’s presence — even though some homes are located so close to their industrial neighbor that children’s toys occasionally end up in the incinerator’s fenced yard.
Many Foxboro residents are concerned about the negative publicity, Garn said, and the way it might impact local property values.
However, not all Foxboro residents are indifferent to the incinerator’s presence.
“There are a few who are involved in those [air quality activist] groups,” Garn said. “It’s caused a real split, neighbor to neighbor.”
“There are people who won’t talk to me anymore,” she added.
At least one neighbor has a camera running 24 hours a day to try to catch Stericycle in a bypass event — a release of emissions that may result from equipment failure, she said. Outside protesters have appeared in the neighborhood as well, trespassing in yards, scaling fences and taking photographs.
“People have come door to door, telling us we need to join these protests,” Garn said. “A lot of people who come to our neighborhood are not even from our neighborhood.”
Stericycle employees have not been unaffected by the publicity and the suddenly proposed relocation.
“Everyone was really upset and very scared when it started to hit the news,” Hoboy said.
Garn said now that things appear to be moving forward, some employees are already talking about relocating to Tooele County, and especially Grantsville. She doesn’t see herself moving because of her age and her job position as dispatcher won’t require it. She also said relocating Stericycle to Tooele County will allow the company opportunities for further growth.
Garn added she would stay with the company as long as she could continue to work in Salt Lake. But for now, there’s little certainty.
“The not knowing has been the hardest,” she said. “And hearing negative things in the news. We like our jobs, so we don’t want to lose our jobs.”