Wednesday, March 13, 2019 | 2 a.m.
A medical waste disposal company with a shoddy environmental record in Utah is considering moving a waste incinerator from Salt Lake City to North Las Vegas, a spokesperson from the company confirmed.
Stericycle, an international medical waste company based in Illinois, plans to construct a 50,000-square-foot facility on a seven-acre parcel in North Las Vegas’ Apex Industrial Park, south of Apex Sapphire Avenue and southwest of Grand Valley Parkway.
Trash incinerated at the proposed facility would include bloodied and infectious items, regulated, international garbage, confidential medical records and non-hazardous pharmaceuticals, according to documents with the Clark County Department of Air Quality.
The items would be shipped in from medical facilities across the Western United States, including from locations in Nevada, said Jennifer Koenig, a spokesperson for Stericycle. After incineration, the remaining ash would be disposed of in a landfill.
Although the company has been in talks with the city of North Las Vegas about building a medical waste incinerator at this site since 2016, officials from Stericycle said in February that the facility would serve as a replacement for an existing incinerator in North Salt Lake, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.
Stericycle’s planned departure from Utah is a victory for some environmental activists and neighbors of the incinerator in North Salt Lake, who have raised concerns for years about emissions coming from the facility.
In 2014, the Utah Division of Air Quality fined the company $2.3 million, the largest fine in the history of the division, for misreporting emissions from its North Salt Lake incinerator and violating emissions limits set by the federal Clean Air Act.
As part of its settlement with the state, Stericycle agreed to move its facility out of North Salt Lake, initially selecting a sparsely populated area of Tooele County, Utah, as the site of its new incinerator. But in February, Stericycle announced that it had nixed those plans and was instead looking at its North Las Vegas property for the new incinerator, citing financial reasons.
“It’s really part of a long-term growth strategy to ensure that we have adequate capacity to meet the long-term needs of health care,” Koenig said.
The proposed incinerator at Apex, a sprawling industrial park northwest of North Las Vegas that is zoned for heavy industrial and manufacturing uses, would serve as Stericycle’s primary incinerator for the western region of the country, Koenig said. The company is not considering any other locations for such a facility at this time.
“It’s geographically desirable, and the Apex Industrial Park itself has good access to highways and has the appropriate infrastructure to support our operation,” Koenig said.
The North Las Vegas Planning Commission approved a special-use permit for a medical waste incinerator at the site in December 2016, although that permit has since expired, said Gina Gavan, chief innovation officer for the city. In addition, Stericycle has acquired a construction permit from the Clark County Division of Air Quality and a solid waste permit from the Southern Nevada Health District.
City officials in North Las Vegas have met with Stericycle as recently as January to share updates on the city’s plans to bring water to the industrial park, Gavan said.
“For them to move forward, they need some [assurance] that there’s going to be water out there in a relatively copacetic timeframe,” Gavan said.
Dr. Ryan Moench, a Utah-based physician who was involved in campaigns to get Stericycle out of North Salt Lake, said that while he is pleased to hear that Stericycle’s incinerator is leaving Utah, he laments that the facility will “be inflicted on another community.”
Moench said that the notion that medical waste must be incinerated separately from other municipal waste is misguided, and that incineration of medical waste emits dangerous toxins and carcinogens including dioxins, furans, radioactive elements and heavy metals.
“Burning was never an appropriate way to handle it, and it still isn’t,” Moench said.
Neighbors of Stericycle’s incinerator in North Salt Lake have complained over the years of visible black clouds emitted from the facility “on a regular basis” due to plant malfunctions, Moench said. During such events, the pollutants would bypass the facility’s pollution control equipment, emitting “raw, contaminated smoke” that is exempt from emissions limits, Moench said.
“They’ll say it’s so [the building] doesn’t explode, and we don’t want them exploding, but that again is an inherent liability to the whole concept of incinerating this waste,” he said.
Since the company reached a settlement with Utah in 2014, the bypass events have occurred less and less frequently, Koenig said.
“Stericycle made significant investments in the facility to improve our emissions in the community, which resulted in a favorable outcome,” she said.
If Stericycle were to construct a similar incinerator in North Las Vegas, Koenig emphasized that it would comply with all federal and state regulations. It would also create about 30-35 new jobs at the plant, in addition to delivery jobs.
“We’d be building the North Las Vegas facility with the latest technology, which enables us to meet the very tight and strict regulations regarding medical waste,” she said.
Contrary to Moench’s assertions, Koenig said that incineration is necessary for about 15 percent of all medical waste in the United States, and that the waste handled by Stericycle must be “chemically destroyed” in order to keep pharmaceuticals and toxins out of water supplies.
“Medical waste management is an important part of the great health care that we enjoy in the United States, and Stericycle takes its responsibility for managing this waste very seriously,” Koenig said.
While Stericycle has only shared preliminary plans for the proposed incinerator in North Las Vegas, the city would take steps to ensure that the company followed all pollution guidelines and regulations if the company does submit official plans, Gavan said.
“We’re excited about new opportunities for development and job creation, and equally as excited in making sure the businesses are reputable and following the guidelines that they need to,” she said.