Send Comments to DEQ on Stericycle, Inc. Air Pollution Violations

North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) is proposing a Special Order by Consent (SOC) with Stericycle, Inc. of Haw River in response to 14 air permit violations since 2019. Stericycle, Inc. is a medical waste incineration facility that is responsible for discharging air pollutants into communities in the Graham and Town of Haw River areas.

Public comments will be accepted until 5 p.m. Friday, October 14th, 2022. Comments can be submitted by email to daq.publiccomments@ncdenr.gov with “Stericycle SOC” in the subject line. 

What is Stericycle, Inc.?

Stericycle, Inc. is a medical waste incineration facility in Haw River, NC. Medical waste includes wastes that have the potential for causing infection or potential to cause harm to humans. This waste often includes large amounts of plastic, which when incinerated, emits lead, mercury, and dioxins. Stericycle, Inc. processed 11,437 tons of medical waste in 2019-2020. This facility has emissions stacks with scrubbers to lessen but not eliminate the toxins emitted. However, it has a bypass stack to release air emissions when protective systems fail. The bypass stack has no treatment method to minimize toxic emissions. 

What violations is the Special Order by Consent meant to address? 

Between April 2019 and May 2022, Stericycle, Inc. used their bypass system due to mechanical failures 14 times. These releases ranged from 2 minutes to 62 minutes. During those times, toxins were released into the environment and communities within a 5 mile radius were exposed to high levels of toxins. Each use of the bypass system resulted in an air permit violation of the particulate matter, dioxin/furan, hydrogen chloride, lead, cadmium, and mercury emission limits. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has flagged Stericycle, Inc. for “high priority violations” each quarter since July 2019. North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality has proposed a Special Order by Consent with the facility to formalize a strategy for upgrades to mechanical systems and prevent further violations by June 30, 2023. The company will be required to pay $65,000 for the total of all previous violations, and will face penalties ranging from $2,500 to $10,000 for any future bypass events depending on the amount of time the bypass system is used. 

What are the health risks associated with medical incineration? 

Medical waste incineration releases particulate matter, which can exacerbate or cause asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and heart conditions. Heavy metals like lead and mercury are emitted when plastic waste is incinerated. Both are neurotoxins that can cross the blood brain barrier as well as the placenta. Infants and young children are especially sensitive to lead and mercury exposures, which may contribute to behavioral problems, learning deficits and lowered IQ.  Both can lead to harmful effects to kidneys, and the nervous, digestive and immune systems, reproductive and developmental systems, and the cardiovascular system. Dioxins are poisonous compounds that break down very slowly in our environment and in our bodies. They can cause cancer, liver and endocrine damage, infertility, and birth defects. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, medical waste incinerators are the second-largest source of dioxin emissions in the country.

Who is at risk? 

Communities surrounding the facility have likely been exposed to high levels of these toxins when the bypass system has been used. In the neighboring census blocks, nearly half of the population is non-white; 57% to 69% are also low income. Asthma rates in children and adults are also above the state average. Additionally, these compounds are emitted into the air, and are reintroduced into the environment as the particles fall into streams and onto soil. These pollutants have the potential to contaminate groundwater and neighboring streams, which flow into the Haw River, a drinking water source for communities downstream. Neighborhoods within a ten mile radius are directly impacted by this facility located at 1168 Porter Ave, Haw River near the Vailtree Event Center. 

What should be done? 

Medical waste incinerators are dangerous to our communities. However, technology exists to properly treat and eliminate toxins before the air is released into the environment. This upgrade should incorporate best available technology to eliminate releases of dioxins, heavy metals, and particulate matter. Inspection reports dating back to 2019 state that three compounds of high concern, dioxin, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides were never tested. This Special Order by Consent seeks to remedy the infrastructural and mechanical issues at the facility to prevent the need to use the bypass system. However, proper testing and monitoring of contaminants of concern should be required during that process. Additionally, the penalty structure for use of the bypass system must be increased to provide more incentive for the company to remedy the problem with a sense of urgency. Stericycle, Inc. reported $6.7 billion in revenue last year. The violation penalties for use of the bypass systems must adequately incentivize a remediation. The Special Order by Consent as proposed would terminate if the bypass system is used nine times within a ninety-day period. Termination of the SOC would result in more stringent enforcement action or termination of the permit required for operation of the facility. This limit is far too high and should be reduced. Ash generated from the incineration must be properly disposed of in a way that prevents groundwater contamination or reintroduction of these toxins into our air, soil, and water. 

What are the next steps? 

Send a comment by email to daq.publiccomments@ncdenr.gov with “Stericycle SOC” in the subject line

Contact Emily Sutton at emily@hawriver.org // 573.979.1038 for additional questions.