Two dozen violations and $40,000 later, Stericycle in Haw River still pumping pollutants into vulnerable communities

By: - June 9, 2022 6:00 am
On April 28, 2022, the hospital, medical and infectious waste incinerator at Stericycle in Haw River failed, resulting in the use of a “bypass stack” for 62 minutes. The bypass stack emits contaminants into the air, without pollution controls, a violation of the Clean Air Act. This graphic shows the prevailing wind directions on that day. When the wind blew from the northwest, it could have blown pollutants into marginalized communities, designated in purple. (Composite map: Lisa Sorg. Base map: DEQ. Wind graphic: State Climate Office, Burlington-Alamance Regional Airport data)

Stericycle, a multinational company with a facility in Haw River, has again been cited by the state for Clean Air Act violations related to its incineration of medical, hospital and infectious waste.

The facility at 1168 Porter Ave., has amassed at least two dozen air quality violations over the past decade, totaling nearly $40,000 in civil penalties. Each quarter since July 2019, the EPA has flagged Stericycle for “high priority violations” including those related to particulate matter emissions. Fine particulate matter can exacerbate or cause asthma, COPD and heart conditions.

Other pollutants are emitted from the burning of medical waste, which can include residues from chemotherapy procedures, even “anatomical waste” — body parts. 

Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE, widely used throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, is also classified as hospital or medical waste. Many of these materials, such as IV tubing, contain large amounts of plastic, according to the Conservation Law Foundation. Burning plastic emits many contaminants, including lead, a neurotoxin; and dioxins, which are known carcinogens, into the air. 

Tucked on a side road near the Vailtree Event Center and Interstate 40, Stericycle is nearly surrounded by environmental justice communities, mostly non-white and/or low-income areas. Depending on the wind direction, pollutants could drift into these neighborhoods.

Based in Illinois, Stericycle is the largest medical waste incinerator company in the country. Nine of its U.S. facilities have current violations, some related to air quality and others regarding waste disposal. Three, including the site in Haw River, have “significant violations,” according to the EPA.

Stericycle is classified as a Title V facility, which applies to the largest air pollution sources. The facility’s main emissions stacks contain scrubbers to reduce, although not eliminate, the amount of contaminants that enter the air. However, a separate bypass system does not have those pollution controls and is supposed to be used only in emergencies. 

Division of Air Quality records show that consistent mechanical and electronic breakdowns have prompted Stericycle to use the bypass system. Operator error accounted for three violations, including one in 2015 when a “disgruntled employee” deployed the bypass system, state records show. That employee was subsequently fired, according to Stericycle’s response to the state.

In some instances, the bypass system opened for only three to 15 minutes. But during the most recent incident on April 28, pollution flowed through the bypass for 62 minutes. Twice, in February 2017 and April 2018, state records show the bypass system allowed pollution to enter the air for eight hours each day.

On the days when the pollutants entered the air for the longest time, data from the Burlington-Alamance Regional Airport show the wind was blowing toward the vulnerable neighborhoods.

  • February 26, 2017, the prevailing winds blew from the west/northwest at 6 to 11 mph. The bypass system was open for eight hours.
  • April 15, 2018, the prevailing winds were from the south/southeast at 8 to 18 mph. The bypass system was open for eight hours.
  • April 28, 2022, the prevailing winds were from the northwest at 3.5 to 13 mph. The bypass system was open for 62 minutes.

The airport is 8.4 miles west of Stericycle. The State Climate Office compiled the data.

Asked about the incidents, Stericycle’s communications team issued a statement that read in part: “As a company that takes environmental health, safety, and compliance seriously, we have made significant investments in meeting and exceeding the EPA emissions standards from our incinerators.  We also continuously work on opportunities for improvement.  This includes investing in proactive measurement and monitoring of emissions, team member training programs, new facility equipment, the development of expanded standard operating procedures, internal and external auditing programs, and other tools for environmental compliance management.

“Additionally, we are currently upgrading equipment at our Haw River facility to help reduce malfunction events that could lead to a bypass event, add redundancy for critical systems, and automate systems to reduce the need for operator intervention. We look forward to continuing to support the healthcare community in this region and remain committed to safe and compliant operations at all our facilities.”

The wind direction on April 15, 2018, came from the southeast, potentially blowing pollution from Stericycle to environmental justice communities northwest of the facility.

Shawn Taylor, spokesperson for the state Division of Air Quality, told Policy Watch that state regulators are “monitoring the situation closely and will be taking appropriate action to address it.”

Beyond additional civil financial penalties, the division could strengthen or even revoke the facility’s permit or petition a superior court judge to halt the emissions.

The Haw River facility receives medical, hospital and infectious waste from both in-state and out-of-state sources, according to state records. In 2019-2020, the latest state data publicly available, Stericycle processed 6,301 tons of waste from within North Carolina, equivalent to 12.6 million pounds. The facility processed another 5,126 tons of waste from out-of-state, or 10.25 million pounds.

Omega Wilson, co-founder of the West End Revitalization Association, based in Mebane, has petitioned federal officials to intervene on behalf of non-white communities near these waste incinerators. 

In a 2020 letter to the U.S. House Committee on Energy & Commerce, Wilson asked that Congress conduct formal oversight and investigations into the management of hazardous and medical waste produced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The growing accumulation of COVID-19 medical, nursing home, and testing waste has yet to be publicly addressed by the Administration, and we hope the Energy & Commerce Committee will be able shine some light on this emerging issue,” Wilson wrote, adding that incinerators and landfills are often sited in or near environmental justice communities.

The census block group of 1,074 people immediately southeast of the facility is 44% non-white and a third low-income, according to the NC Department of Environmental Quality Community Mapping System.

The wind on Feb. 26, 2017, blew from the west, potentially sending pollution from Stericycle to environmental justice communities east of the facility.

Childhood hospitalizations because of asthma are 70% above the state average in these census block groups. However, Stericycle is only one of six more facilities with air permits in that block group; the neighborhoods are also near I-40, where transportation-related pollution is high.

Less than three miles west of Stericycle, a third to more than half of the census block groups are non-white; 57% to 69% are low-income. Asthma rates in children and adults are also above the state average in those areas.

Stericycle’s air permit expired in January 2021, but the Division of Air Quality has administratively continued it — for 478 days — while awaiting more information from the company. That allows the company to operate under the terms of the old permit.

When a new draft permit is eventually proposed, the state must hold a public comment period.

In August 1997, the EPA enacted new regulations for incinerators like those operated by Stericycle “due to significant concerns over detrimental air quality affecting human health.” The standards have not been updated since 2013.

There are other treatment and disposal methods for medical waste: microwave technologies, steam sterilization, among them. Stericyle uses alternative waste treatment methods at 50 of its North American facilities and 32 internationally, according to the company’s 2021 annual report — but not in Haw River.

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.