Out of the Furnace but…

A.C.Thompson, SF Bay Guardian

Last Monday marked the end of the line for Oakland's Integrated
Environmental Systems. A competitor bought the medical-waste incinerator,
closed the trouble-prone plant, and laid off its 70 employees. The new owner,
an Illinois-based megacorporation called Stericycle, will keep IES's trucks and
its contracts with California
hospitals and clinics.

And so concludes one chapter in an enduring
controversy. To environmentalists, IES was the prototypical corporate
earth-wrecker, a toxin-spewing business with little concern for the largely
Latino neighborhood downwind. The company was a subsidiary of trash-collection giant
Norcal Waste Systems.

"This is the ultimate
David-versus-Goliath victory," said Bradley Angel, executive director of
Greenaction. "We've been deluged with messages from people across the
country saying this victory is an inspiration to them."

The key issue in the four-year struggle was
dioxin, a hypercarcinogenic chlorine compound. IES burned some 4,600 tons of
hospital refuse annually, and tests showed the incinerator, even when
functioning properly, was emitting small amounts of dioxin from its smokestacks.

IES's abysmal track record was also a source
of constant irritation for greens. During the past five years the plant racked
up more than 100 air pollution violations, giving the company one of the
longest environmental rap sheets in the state. And in November the company paid
out nearly $1 million to settle a heap of charges – including a state
Department of Health Services claim that IES mishandled more than 1,400 barrels
of pathological material.

Though IES sought to minimize the pressure
it was under from regulators and environmentalists – "Economics were the
driving factor in this deal," company spokesperson Jay Silverberg said –
that pressure almost certainly made selling the plant an attractive option.

But the clear skies over Oakland could mean an increase in air
pollution elsewhere.

With $600 million in assets, Stericycle is
the dominant player in the medical-waste biz, employing a variety of
technologies at its 36 facilities. The company's newer plants, including three
in California,
use steam autoclaves or oscillating electrical waves to destroy
pathogens without generating toxic emissions. Other facilities rely on
incineration. A portion of the waste once torched at IES will go to autoclaves
in California, while the rest will be shipped
to incinerators in Arizona and Utah, Rich Kogler,
Stericycle's CEO, told the Bay Guardian.

We were unable to dig up much information
about Stericycle's plants in California and
the Southwest, but at least two of the corporation's facilities – in Missouri and Washington
– have apparently made some serious blunders.

Public documents show the company's St. Louis incinerator was
busted for 96 air pollution violations in December 2000, including excessive
emissions of toxic mercury and hydrogen chloride. When the Missouri Department
of Natural Resources came after the corporation for $200,000 in fines,
Stericycle balked, asking the department to knock the fine down to $25,000.
"The proposed penalty is far greater than any penalty sought in the past
ten years," Stericycle officials wrote to the state.

"We have no precedent for a source with
96 violations," state environmental enforcement chief Steven Feeler shot
back in a letter. "The potential liability for these violations would
approach $1,000,000, so we feel our offer is fair."

Another issue: the company's own tests show
the St. Louis
plant is putting out far more dioxin than IES ever did.

In 1997 Stericycle's autoclave facility in Washington ran into
trouble with the federal and state authorities when three workers at the plant
contracted tuberculosis, which can be fatal. A team of 14 public health
officials, including researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, were sent to the plant to investigate. "Processing
contaminated medical waste resulted in transmission of M tuberculosis to
at least one medical waste treatment facility worker," concluded the
researchers in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The
debacle led to a $1,100 fine for failing to require "thorough employee
decontamination," according to public records on file at the Washington
Department of Labor and Industries.

Still, Stericycle's Kogler is unwilling to
acknowledge these well-documented snafus. He claims the St. Louis air quality problems "were
primarily reporting and paperwork violations." On the T.B.
outbreak, Kogler said: "So far as I know there was never anything
definitive linking Stericycle" to the ailing employees. "We
have a commitment to protect not just our employees but also to protect the
communities where we're located."

Kogler's spin doesn't placate Mike Green at Oakland's Center for
Environmental Health. "Their record is not good," Green told us. "We're
enthusiastic that Stericycle is not going to incinerate in the Bay
Area, but we don't want them to stop here and start incinerating our
waste in Utah or Arizona. We don't want to ship our problem elsewhere."

 

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