When Stericycle Inc. officials made their pitch last month to locate an infectious waste processing facility in town, they told city officials: “We’ve never been rejected by any community we’ve tried to get into.”
The company may never have been formally rejected, but it hasn’t always been embraced. Stericycle left at least two of the sites where it wanted to build treatment facilities after resistance from residents in one case and the property owner in another.
Last year, Stericycle wanted to build a plant in Rialto, Calif., a residential community of 75,000 about 60 miles west of Los Angeles. The proposal sparked a public outcry, and the company eventually abandoned Rialto to build a plant in Loma Linda, Calif., about 110 miles away.
Donna Montag, principal planner for the city of Rialto, recalled that the city hired an environmental consulting firm to study the company’s process. Their findings were reviewed by county and state agencies, whose responses were incorporated into the report.
The report concluded that while the project could have a significant impact on the environment, certain modifications could be installed that would alleviate those effects.
“Basically, from the experts’ point of view, it was OK,” Montag said. But that did not appease residents who lived near the site of the proposed plant, he said.
“They were upset,” Montag said. “They didn’t like the idea of this being so close to their area, and some city residents didn’t like it because they felt it would bring nothing to the city except problems.
“It was hot politically. People were wondering: do we want to become the medical waste center of southern California? That would impact the decision of industries that may want to come here in the future.
“They didn’t care what the experts said. They’d heard the experts say, ‘Chernobyl, no problem. Thee Mile Island, no problem.’ But once it happens, where are the experts?
“Every time somebody died or caught a cold down there, they would have blamed that plant,” Montag said. “From that perspective, it was nice that they went away.”
The company pulled its application for the Rialto plant just before a scheduled public hearing was to take place. At that time, it had just been granted a permit to open a facility in Loma Linda, Calif.
Montag said he believes the company “got cold feet.”
“They were afraid they’d get turned down or have such a public outcry that it would affect their impression on other communities,” he said.
Anthony Tomasello, vice president of operations for Stericycle, said that was not the case. “We had a choice as to where we wanted to be, and Loma Linda provided a much more attractive environment,” he said. “We got a better deal, and we took it.”
Loma Linda welcomed the company without a single voice in opposition, according to Mary Ann Cordova of the city’s community development office. She attributed that acceptance to the city’s high-profile medical community, which includes several hospitals and a prominent medical university.
“The residents themselves have a pretty good idea of what’s involved” in medical waste disposal, she said. “We felt real positive about it. There was not one person who opposed it.”
The plant may open as early as this spring, Cordova said.
Before Stericycle turned to Michigan City as a prospective Indiana site, the company tried to locate a facility in Munster. But Tomasello said a deal to buy land at a Munster industrial park fell through.
James Morgan, operations manager for Trans-Continental Properties, which owns the park, said the company was concerned that the presence of a medical waste processing facility could adversely affect property values in the park.
“We had no problems with their process,” he said. “But we as landowners were concerned with perceptions. It’s a new technique, and people have a lot of questions. We had to watch out for our own land values and protect our assets.”
Morgan said he believed the company would have been better sited in a “more heavily industrial area, sort of away from things. Then others can make the choice if they want to move near them.”
Munster Town Manager Tom DeGiulio said Stericycle had received a warm reception from town officials. He said he regretted that the company did not settle in Munster. “My impression was that it was a first-rate outfit,” he said. “I think they would have been a good addition to the community.”
That is what residents and officials in Morton, Wash., population 1,190, said too. Stericycle opened a processing facility there last month after 200 residents signed petitions urging the company to come to town.
“We’re a very timber-depressed region, and we are looking for jobs for our people,” said Town Clerk Sherry Claycamp.
So far, the company has been an asset to the community, Claycamp said. “We’re impressed with the plant and the way it’s running,” she said. “They worked hard with the city in any way they could, and the rapport with the town is great.”
Mike Vinatieri, environmental health director for Lewis County, Wash., said he is satisfied that the facility is running safely. Vinatieri said his office inspected the first batches of treated medical waste and found no problems. “I do not see it as a risk to anybody,” he said.
Last year, Vinatieri said, he paid a surprise visit to the company's West Memphis, Ark., plant on a weekend. The plant was “operating very effectively,” even in areas where he did not expect it to, he said.
“If they wanted to put another facility here,“ Vinatieri added, “I don’t think they’d have any problem at all.”