Though they expect it will be some time before they are able to make the move, company leaders with Stericycle talk about a possible Tooele County relocation in terms of when and how.
Officials from the Illinois-based medical waste handler visited the Transcript-Bulletin Tuesday afternoon after meeting with local government leaders. There were numerous misconceptions afloat in area media, they said, and they wanted to familiarize local residents with their operation and make their side of the story known.
Stericycle’s Selin Hoboy, vice president of legislative and regulatory affairs, and Jennifer Koenig, vice president of corporate communications, spoke openly about the company’s permit violation last summer.
Four separate events — two related to electrical failures and two to mechanical failures — caused their stack to open and release unfiltered emissions into the surrounding neighborhood, they said. Hoboy estimated that these kinds of “bypass events” take place roughly six times a year.
In 2013, the repeated incidents led the Utah Department of Air Quality to issue a notice of permit violation to the incinerator — the first time the company has violated a conditional use permit in 25 years of doing business, said Hoboy.
However, that violation brought Stericycle into the public eye at a time of heated debate about air quality, pollution and the role of government regulation. Stericycle soon found itself among a maelstrom of public criticism.
“We’re really big on compliance, so a lot of what has been said has been hurtful,” Koenig said.
Stericycle is not a hazardous waste company. Their main business is regulated medical waste, Hoboy explained. Their incinerators take blood, tissue and other such medical wastes that may contain biological or trace pharmaceutical contamination and burn them to ensure complete sterilization. The disposal of bulk wastes that would be classified as hazardous — dangerous chemicals or radioactive materials — is outsourced.
The company generally operates on a kind of spoke-and-wheel ideal, with key facilities positioned near medical hubs in large cities, such as Salt Lake. Stericycle operates about 150 facilities, including eight incinerators, in the U.S., Hoboy said.
Those facilities employ a variety of disposal technologies to sterilize and dispose of medical waste, and Stericycle is always on the lookout for better, more effective and efficient technologies, Hoboy said.
Incineration is one of the more expensive methods they employ, she said, but they continue to offer the service because it is the only method of disposal that is considered entirely effective for certain kinds of medical waste, and because medical professionals continue to request it.
The amount of medical waste that is ultimately incinerated is relatively small, representing roughly 10 to 15 percent of the waste produced by a typical hospital, Hoboy continued. Consequently, Stericycle measures waste to be incinerated in pounds, unlike most other waste disposal companies, which measure waste in tons.
When it was built, the incinerator in North Salt Lake was a state-of-the art facility, she said. Between the various pollution controls and the plant’s low volume, she said the typical emissions produced in 24 hours by that incinerator are equivalent to emissions produced by six diesel semi trucks running continuously for the same period of time.
The new Tooele facility would produce half that, Hoboy said. New federal and state regulations require it. Additionally, the Tooele incinerator would include a back-up diesel generator to cut back on bypass events related to power outages. Still, Hoboy said these modifications — or even taking Stericycle out of the picture entirely — would not bring Utah’s air quality to the standards the company’s opponents demand.
“The reality of it is, even if you took us out of the state, it would not solve the air shed problem,” Hoboy said. The company’s emissions are already so small, she added, that they remain unmentioned in the state’s implementation plan to address Utah’s air quality, which the EPA has determined violates federal standards.
Hoboy admitted that many of the company’s current problems with public opinion are, to some degree, the company’s fault. When the company first built its incinerator in North Salt Lake, their neighbors were of the industrial variety. She said they went about their business quietly for several years, and then found themselves located in a residential neighborhood with an unloved community incinerator.
“We didn’t realize there was this zoning and redevelopment going on around us, until it was almost too late,” Hoboy said.
Stericycle believes the site in Rowley, which the Utah Trust Lands Administration has agreed to sell to Stericycle, would be a win for everyone involved, Hoboy said. The site is remote enough that nearby residential development seems unlikely, yet close enough that the company will still have easy access to the major hospitals that are its main customers.
The Rowley site is also substantially larger than their current Salt Lake property, which could give Stericycle the opportunity to expand its local operations in the future.
There were other sites, also trust lands, that Stericycle considered initially. However, Stericycle ultimately chose the Tooele County site as optimal for relocation. It served the company’s needs, and employees generally viewed the decision favorably.
“We have some employees who are really excited about moving here to Tooele,” Hoboy said. “One of them was planning to move out here anyway.”
Stericycle’s incinerator currently has 55 full-time employees. Most jobs pay more than $10 an hour, Hoboy said, and the company provides free on-site training so employees can move up within the company.
However, the land sale is not yet a done deal. Before the company can begin relocating, Stericycle must first obtain permission to do so via a legislative resolution. With that approval, the company will then apply for permits from the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, and finally for a green light from the governor’s office.
Once cleared with the state, the company will also have to obtain permission from local authorities. Though the Rowley site is zoned for general manufacturing, a zone that can include incinerators, it will require that Stericycle obtain a conditional use permit from the county, and that process will require public hearings.
The entire process is expected to take at least six months, and likely more. Because the relocation is some time off, Hoboy said the company has already invested $1.5 million to add a diesel generator at the current Salt Lake site to curb emissions from bypass events.
Stericycle has been in discussions with all three Tooele County commissioners, Hoboy said, as well as Grantsville City Mayor Brent Marshall and Tooele City Mayor Patrick Dunlavy. They have yet to begin detailed negotiations, she said, especially where mitigation fees are concerned.
“We’ve never paid mitigation fees before,” she said. “But we were told about mitigation fees from day one. Our perception was that it was just expected.”
Legally, the company does not have to move, Hoboy said. They could still remain in North Salt Lake. However, Hoboy said their current preference is for the Tooele County relocation — and not just because that’s where the state wants to see them.
“Nobody pushed us to Tooele,” she said. “We chose Tooele.”