Stericycle suffers 2 more emergency emission incidents

Tuesday , March 04, 2014 - 11:37 AM

Cathy McKitrick, Standard-Examiner Staff

NORTH SALT LAKE — As if on cue, the emergency bypass stack at Stericycle’s North Salt Lake medical waste incineration plant spewed black smoke in two separate episodes Wednesday, both captured on video by concerned residents.

And Utah’s winter-time inversion has also settled in, trapping hazardous gray smog in the populated valleys along Utah’s Wasatch Front.

These events serve as compelling props for a “Clean Air, No Excuses” rally slated for noon Saturday at Utah’s State Capitol in Salt Lake City.

Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Health Environment, expects the event to be “the largest such rally in the history of the state and possibly the largest ‘pollution’ rally in the country.” Alicia Connell, co-founder of Communities for Clean Air, lived in the Foxboro subdivision near Stericycle for nine years before recently moving to Farmington.

On Thursday, Connell voiced fresh concerns about the facility she hopes to see move elsewhere.

“What is Stericycle doing still in operation when there are zero-emission technologies that can handle the same medical waste?” Connell said. “Why are they allowed three emergency bypass events in just over one week?”

Addressing a town hall meeting this past summer, Moench told the crowd that “Stericycle is constantly releasing what really amounts to poison in the most populated part of Utah.”

However, some say these emergency bypass events — often caused by a brief power outage — serve as a safety valve.

“A bypass is a safety latch they put in to protect their control equipment,” said Donna Spangler, spokeswoman for Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality.

In the case of a power bump, the latch would be tripped and waste fed to the incinerator would stop. The bypass would then open up to prevent damage to the control circuit, Spangler said.

“They typically only have half a dozen a year,” Spangler said, adding that the bypass must also be opened to conduct maintenance.

Rusty Ruby, compliance branch manager for Utah’s Division of Air Quality, said that Stericycle alerted them that at 5:25 p.m. Wednesday an employee noticed the stack’s cap open about 6 to 8 inches.

No alarms were going off in the plant, and the computer indicated the cap was closed, the email said. However, the hydraulic pump was not coming on so a “come-a-long” was used to close the cap. An employee also noticed that the actuator arm for the limit switch was frozen in the closed position.

A new pressure relief valve and lmit switch for the stack cap were installed to take care of the problem, according to the Stericycle email sent to DAQ.

To Ruby, the black smoke that periodically pours from Stericycle’s emergency bypass stack makes the facility an easy target for opponents, Ruby said, because it’s so highly visible.

“But the total amount of emissions on an annual basis are very small,” Ruby added.

Regardless of the reason or frequency of these events, Moench still considers incineration of medical waste to pose an unacceptable risk to the community.

“There are easier and cleaner ways to dispose of hospital waste,” Moench said Thursday, noting that some countries have banned the practice outright.

Moench warned that Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus, MRSA, a bacteria that causes hard-to-treat infections, has been shown to survive incineration.

Moench also blasted the incinerator’s emissions of dioxins, mercury and lead, made worse by inversions that act like a lid to trap the pollutants into neighboring communities.

“Studies of other incinerators have shown that these bypass events can produce a tremendous amount of toxins, and can be responsible for most of a year’s worth of their deadliest components,” Moench said.

“For them to act like it’s not a big deal because its shortlived, Stericycle is downplaying the risk, and it’s a matter of ignorance on DAQ’s part.”

Attempts to reach Stericycle Thursday were unsuccessful.

More information about Saturday’s rally can be found at

Contact reporter Cathy McKitrick at 801-625-4214 or Follow her on Twitter at @catmck.

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