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California regulatory agency issues order to shutter Stericycle incinerator (opinion)


Submitted by Sam Toll

As he wrapped up his comments before voting to approve the Stericycle Special Use Permit, Commissioner Jay Carmona said “I personally am confident with the answers I have received (from Stericycle). There have been some accusations made (about Stericycle) which I haven’t seen much evidence to support.”

Presumably, some of those “accusations” came from Blockchains, Inc. by way of Matthew Digesti who prepared a lengthy 335 page document (which can be read here) outlining concerns they have with Stericycle as a neighbor.

It’s tough to see evidence of Stericycle’s checkered past if you don’t look. If you do look, the stuff you find might make your skin crawl. 

Or not…

Evidence Converts Accusations Into Facts

One of the “accusations” made by Digesti was a fact referencing the $1.4 million settlement with the California Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) for violating California’s hazardous waste laws in 2017 at a facility in Rancho Cordova.

More evidence (facts) of Stericycle’s conduct surfaced Monday when DTSC issued a press release in which they announce they have denied Stericycle’s renewal application permit to operate that same Rancho Cordova facility.

The facility operated by General Environmental Management (GEM), a company that Stericycle purchased in 2014 and continued to operate under the GEM banner, was denied permission to continue hazardous waste incinerator operations in Sacramento County.

The facility handles bio-hazardous materials and other toxic waste. The facility is similar to the one approved by the Storey County Planning Commission and County Commissioners earlier this month.

“This company has repeatedly failed to comply with California’s hazardous waste laws,” said DTSC Director Meredith Williams. “Today’s decision demonstrates that DTSC will take any and all action necessary to protect the public and our environment from toxic harm.”

According to the DTSC, “(GEM/Stericycle’s) compliance history demonstrates a repeating pattern of violations and mismanagement of hazardous waste at the facility, which resulted in three fires and an explosion.”

Williams continued, “DTSC considered GEM’s operations history over the last 10 years, which included more than 70 violations, one explosion, and three fires at the facility. In an October 2018 civil settlement, DTSC required GEM to pay more than $1.4 million in penalties for multiple violations, including those resulting from a fire in 2017 where employees intentionally ignited hazardous waste containing naphthalene, a flammable substance. 

“There were also two earlier fires and an explosion at the facility involving improperly mixing incompatible hazardous waste.  The settlement prohibited GEM and Stericycle from handling reactive waste and required them to adequately train employees handling hazardous waste, among other conditions. GEM and Stericycle have been unable to demonstrate compliance with those requirements. GEM and Stericycle’s history of noncompliance, along with an inability to meet the terms of the settlement which were imposed to prevent future instances of noncompliance, formed the basis of DTSC’s decision to deny the permit application.”

In taking this action, The State of California is confirming the “accusation” made by Blockchains with facts they found in their investigation proving Stericycle has a dangerous record of safety and mismanagement. 

California gave Stericycle chance after chance after chance to clean up their act and comply with state law yet they couldn’t figure out how operate within the law.

In looking into this one location, I came across a document (which you can read here) that outlined Stericycle’s disregard for Californians living near the facility and the employees working there.

Let’s just say it could be very concerning. 

Or not…

New and Improved

One of the things we heard about during their presentations at both meetings was the notion that Stericycle’s freshly minted Executive Vice President and Chief Engineer Dominic Culotta and the members of the new and improved executive management team represent a reboot of the company’s leadership and culture. 

This new team, we are assured, has over the past 18 months charted a new course for the company and is taking aggressive steps to move in a new and improved direction.

However, the facts, for those properly motivated to unearth them, may suggest otherwise.

In their findings, DTCS said: “DTSC cannot confirm the validity of the comment or the assumption that the new appointees will result in improvement. DTSC made the decision to deny the Permit Application based on the past ten years of operation in conditions dangerous to public health, safety, and the environment.”

Another Stericycle facility is discussed in the DTSC document; Stericycle’s facility in Tacoma, Washington. Stericycle was fined $1.9 million for the mismanagement of hazardous waste leading to a fire: “They are required by law to meet strict permit conditions. This incident shows a complete disregard for the safety of their employees and nearby communities, and that’s totally unacceptable.”

From the statements in the document one might conclude the efforts of the new management team have yet to turn the company around and make them a positive corporate citizen.

Or not…

10-15 Trucks A Day

With the pending closure of this facility in California and the shuttering of other facilities across the western United States, the likelihood is that the number of trucks will balloon over the years. 

While the truck traffic at Stericycle all month will probably equal the number of trucks in and out of Walmart’s facility during a single day, the toxic and bio-hazardous waste, human body parts and plain old gick they bring will likely exceed what they are currently estimating.

Perhaps by a factor of a whole bunch.

Or not…

Medical waste similar to what Stericycle processes for disposal, among other items. Image: Image by alexroma from Pixabay 

A Necessary Evil

At the Commission Meeting, Storey County Commissioner Jay Carmona told residents, “We live in a world where we generate waste that has to be brought down to the safest levels. I’ve had cancer twice. I can only imagine the bags of empty chemotherapy treatment that you guys are dealing with, and unfortunately in today’s society we have to have a place that we can get rid of that stuff. While I don’t think we want any more pollution, I think this is one of those necessary evils.”

Carmona asked what the equivalent emissions would be in terms of a diesel engine. The Stericycle employee answered “about ten semi trucks.” While that might be true, I doubt the trucks are capable of producing what North Las Vegas referred to as “some of the most dangerous chemicals known to man” by burning diesel fuel.

What will ultimately come out of those smoke stacks is years away and very much unknown. As Storey County Commission hopeful Clay Mitchell describes, “depending on who you are talking to, those emissions are potentially Armageddon, or they are basically harmless.”

The emissions could be basically harmless. 

Or not…

Not An Isolated Incident

What occurred in Rancho Cordova (where I have friends, former clients and former employees) is not an isolated incident. This has happened in Washington, Utah and elsewhere. The type of corporate behavior makes you wonder how the guy tasked with vetting the company for TRIC (Kris Thompson), the Storey County Planning Department and the Board of Commissioners missed all this stuff. Anyone spending a few hours on the internet could discover thousands and thousands of pages documenting their less than stellar behavior.

Or not…

Can Anything Be Done About This?

That remains to be seen. As the Salt Lake Tribune reported last year, getting rid of these guys could be a whole lot harder than letting them in.

Or not…

Sam Toll is a Gold Hill Native, a Journalist reporting on Storey County with his micronews site The Storey Teller and is running for Storey County Commissioner.

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