North Salt Lake • Families campaigning to shut down medical-waste incinerator Stericycle were buoyed Saturday by a visit from environmentalist Erin Brockovich who is lending her star power and investigatory resources to their cause.
In every community, the seed of activism is deception, "a company that from its inception is not doing the right thing and is not keeping its promise to be a good neighbor," said Brockovich to a gymnasium full of hundreds of concerned citizens at a school within walking distance of the incinerator, Foxboro Elementary School.
But it's through activism, and only through activism, that truths are revealed, wrongs are righted and communities are healed, she said. "This is your community, your air, your land, your water, your children, your health and welfare and you need to use your voices ... to make the necessary change to make your life better. It all begins with you."
Brockovich is a legal clerk-turned activist who, despite having no training as a lawyer, took on Pacific Gas and Electric Company in 1993 for contaminating groundwater in Hinckley Calif. Her story was dramatized in a film starring Julia Roberts.
The 53-year-old encouraged North Salt Lakers to rely on "good old common sense" and warned them not to be lulled into complacency by "overburdened, understaffed and underfunded" regulatory agencies or politicians, lawyers and scientists who claim to know better.
"You know in your heart, in your soul when something is wrong with your family and something is wrong with your child," she said to loud applause. "We have no business burning biohazardous waste on top of people, communities and children. No business."
Stericycle issued a statement Saturday saying it was in compliance with the conditions of its permits.
"Stericycle has installed additional controls, implemented more robust monitoring and preventive maintenance procedures, and verified key operating parameters and controls in order to ensure ongoing compliance with [Utah Department of Environmental Quality] emission limits," the company statement said.
At a community meeting in June, Selin Hoboy, Stericycle's vice president of legislative and regulatory affairs, described Stericycle as burning bloody bandages, used needles, chemotherapy waste and other medical discards.
"It is our intent to stay," she said in that June meeting, "and be a good neighbor in the community."
Attending Saturday's town hall were City Council members, Rep. Rebecca Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, and Mayor Len Arave, who faced pointed questions about why he hasn't revoked Stericycle's conditional-use permit.
Arave said doing so would be "like a judge sentencing someone without an investigation or trial," and said he is deferring to state regulators while trying to persuade the company to relocate.
Stericyle sets fire to medical waste that it accepts from seven states, including some that discourage incineration, which is no longer viewed as the best way to dispose of these materials.
The Illinois-based company received violation notices earlier this year from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality for exceeding emission limits on nitrogen oxide, dioxins and other hazardous pollutants at its North Salt Lake facility, which is surrounded by subdivisions.
After Brockovich's pep talk, residents marched to the incinerator, chanting and waving signs in protest.
When asked how many had experienced respiratory problems and recurrent headaches, half of those in the crowd raised their hands.
Among them: 35-year-old father of two Shane Moser, who lives a few miles from the incinerator and said the acrid smell sometimes wakes him at night.
"We're thinking about having a third child and wonder if we should move," he said.
Michael Horrocks wonders if Stericycle's emission could be tied to the infertility problems plaguing several families in his condo complex. Susan Fleck said she is fighting to have Foxboro Elementary install air filtration systems to protect her autistic son.
Brockovich and her team of investigators handed out 18-page questionnaires seeking detailed information about residents' health, work and home environments and lifestyles, including the source of their drinking water and whether they have excessive dust in their homes. Data collected will be used to document the impacts of Stericycle on the community.
The team isn't filing legal action, just arming the community with facts, said Brockovich's partner, Bob Bowcock, an engineer and expert in water treatment and testing.
Stericycle's permit violations aren't the company's first breach of trust, said Bowcock.
The North Salt Lake plant initially applied for a permit to burn approximately 1,300 pounds of medical waste per hour. But before it actually opened, the company applied to raise that to 1,850 pounds per hour with the same equipment, Bowcock said.
Soon after they won approval to burn 2,500 pounds per hour, he said. "[They] are burning 100 percent more than they were originally designed for."
In December 2011, state regulators discovered Stericycle was violating its permit by emitting some chemicals at four times the allowed amount, said Bowcock. "It would be dangerous to live in this community if they had complied with their permit. But you're living in a community where they are violating their permit in orders of magnitude. We probably will never know what you have been exposed to."