BY REBECCA PALMER
NORTH SALT LAKE -- A day after neighbors joined in anger to protest the medical incinerator Stericycle near their homes, Utah Division of Air Quality Compliance Manager Harold Burge was confident the company would see fines for exceeding the emissions limits of hazardous chemicals.
The issue came up during a Division of Air Quality Board Meeting on Wednesday, July 3 when boardmember Kathy Van Dame asked about media reports surrounding the issue.
The division is waiting for Stericycle to provide information about the economic gain it received when it allegedly exceeded the limits of its permit between December of 2011 and March of this year, Burge told the board. The company has until the end of July to provide numbers, and then negotiations can resume.
“We’re waiting to see what kind of numbers they come back with and how defensible they are,” he said.
His next statement shed new light on the delay between the alleged violations and public awareness of it.
“They still believe that they never failed on the dioxin,” he said.
The first public document about the compliance problems didn’t come until five months after the bad tests, when a compliance advisory was issued in April of 2012. The issue didn’t get widespread attention until 18 months later, when the division issued a Notice of Violation in May of this year.
The night before, protesters voiced frustration over the delay in notification.
“I think people in the United States of American have a right to know what their babies are breathing,” said GreenAction organizer Bradley Angel.
“Protect our babies,” read one large protest sign. The outline of a womb and fetus emphasized the phrase.
Except for security guards in the distance, the only action from Stericycle during the protest was to ask two elderly protesters not to use the shady spot in the company parking lot.
The increase in emissions of both dioxin and nitrogen oxide from Stericycle that showed up during the 2011 tests were likely due to an increase in the amount of waste being burned, Burge said the day afterward.
“Basically it looks to us like they have too much business,” he said. “The incinerator’s only designed to handle so much.
Burge added that the Stericycle incinerator in North Salt Lake is the only one in the western United States, except one in Kansas and a few in Texas.
“They’ve got all this waste coming in from all over,” Burge said. “They’re just trying to take care of it all and I don’t think the unit can really handle it.”
Disputes over test results between medical waste incinerator Stericycle and the division, which grants the company’s permit to operate, led to the delay in notifying the public of the exceeded limits and, ultimately, to the Notice of Violation, Burge said.
It started when a stack test for nitrogen oxide failed in December of 2011, when the company called the division to report that tests were showing it had exceeded the clean air limits. The division told Stericycle it could test as many times as it wanted, but that it had to report the numbers from the first, bad tests.
“When they submitted the test report, they only showed the test that passed, even though we told them not to,” Burges said.
Then, the company continued to deny that it had exceeded the limits. Stericycle brought in a consultant over the issue, Burge said, and the division had to work with the company’s emission testing lab in Canada after the company denied that it had exceeded dioxin furan levels, not just nitrogen oxide ones. Furthermore, Stericycle’s attorney got the office of the Utah Attorney General involved, further delaying the process.
In addition to test failures, the company had multiple citations in the Notice of Violation for failure to report deviations on time and “failure to operate the incinerator in a manner consistent with good engineering practices for minimizing emissions,” according to the document.
Beyond assessing fines, or as a bargaining tool to reduce them, the division could require Stericycle to make changes to lower its emissions beyond permit requirements. For example, it might require installation of continuous emissions monitors.
“We would like to see something like that,” he said.
That technology doesn’t work for heavy metals such as dioxins, but works well for nitrogen oxides, Burge said. He hopes technology to detect heavy metals continuously will soon become available, but existing tests take weeks.
The resolution of the Notice of Violations will also likely include changes in Stericycle’s permit relating to procedure. When the company failed the 2011 tests, it had been using procedures that were allowed by its existing permit, Burge said.