SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Doctors, mothers and residents of a northern Utah city are calling on Gov. Gary Herbert to shut down a medical waste incinerator they say is blanketing the region in toxic smoke.
A group of mothers and physicians who advocate for cleaner air said at a news conference Wednesday that the Stericycle, Inc. facility in North Salt Lake puts the public at risk for increased rates of autism, cancer, fertility issues and other health problems.
Representatives for Stericycle did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment Wednesday.
The Stericycle plant, which sits adjacent to a neighborhood, receives medical waste from states around the western United States, processing about 7,000 tons of waste a year, according to the state Division of Air Quality.
The medical waste includes everything from laboratory tools made of plastic and glass, to human tissue and fluids and animal tissues and carcasses.
It is also permitted to treat infectious waste, which the DAQ defines as waste that may contain pathogens that result in infectious diseases in someone who is exposed to it.
Protesters are calling for the plant’s closure after a large black cloud of smoke came from the facility’s smokestack Friday, which officials say was a release automatically trigged by high temperatures inside the facility.
The situation has gotten out of control, and Friday’s release compounded the amount of pollutants that were released, said Dr. Brian Moench, an anesthesiologist and president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, which has been pushing air regulators to adopt tough measures.
“Incinerators do not eliminate hazardous substances,” he said. “They concentrate them, redistribute them, and even create new ones like dioxins.”
Dangerous pollutants produced by the plants then spread for miles and are inhaled or ingested by residents, Moench said.
“It is a business that shouldn’t exist,” said Alicia Connell, who lives near the facility and founded the advocacy group Communities for Clean Air.
Connell said several members of her family have struggled with health problems in recent years, and they now question whether the nearby incinerator may have played a role.
“We certainly share community concern over these emissions,” said Ally Isom, the governor’s deputy chief of staff. “Our agencies are pursuing penalties to the fullest extent of the law.”
Isom said Utah and partners in the state are working to improve air quality and “It is distressing when one entity appears less committed to doing its part.”
In May, the Division of Air Quality ruled that the facility had committed multiple air quality violations from 2011 to 2013 by emitting excessive amounts of toxic substances and pollutants linked to respiratory problems and eye irritation.
The department has since revised its violation for the plant, adding stiffer penalties and requirements to deter Stericycle from excess emissions in the future.
The Utah Department of Environmental Quality, which oversees the air quality division, issued a statement Wednesday afternoon saying it shares the community’s concerns about the facility.
“The Division of Air Quality is closely scrutinizing Stericycle to ensure compliance,” DEQ executive director Amanda Smith said.
If it does not comply, Smith said, “DEQ will pursue all legal options to revoke its permit.”
DEQ is still investigating Friday’s incident, department spokeswoman Donna Spangler said.
The release was triggered automatically to lower excessive temperatures in the facility for about five minutes Friday evening. Stericycle notified the department immediately afterward.
If the release was caused by a lack of maintenance or operator error, it would be a violation, the department said.
Sarah Sargent, who lives in the nearby Foxboro community, said her 6-year-old son was playing outside their home when the cloud was released.
The dust cloud burned his eyes and obscured his vision, Sargent said, while inside, her house was filled with a smell she says was distinct from the odors carried by winds off the nearby Great Salt Lake.
“A very strong smell permeated my entire house,” Sargent said. “It was a rotten egg and sulfur smell unlike anything I’ve ever smelled.”
Dr. Ellie Brownstein, a Salt Lake City pediatrician, said there are multiple medical studies showing that people living near incinerators have higher risks of cancer and other health problems.