The last time city residents, politicians and business people were so galvanized by an issue, Waste Management Inc. wanted to expand the county landfill to make way for more out-of-state trash.
This time, it’s another solid-waste issue, with an Illinois company proposing to build an infectious waste processing facility in the south Lake Michigan Industrial Park on the east side of town.
Medical waste would be hauled from Indiana and Chicago hospitals to the plant, where, according to Stericycle Inc.’s application for an operating permit, it would be shredded, disinfected by heat and prepared for recycling or landfilling. It then would leave Michigan City to be recycled or dumped elsewhere.
The Rolling Meadows, Ill.-based company is applying for a permit from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. A decision is expected after the public comment period closes March 13.
The issue appears to have struck a nerve among residents, many of whom are objecting loudly and angrily to becoming a “magnet” for waste from outside the county. Mayor Richard Behler and City Councilman Marlow Harmon, whose 6th Ward would be home to the facility, are urging residents to keep an open mind on the proposal.
“My opinion is that the process appears to be safe, that the transportation method appears to be safe,” the mayor said. “But what really counts is the collective opinion of the community. I urge people to form that opinion, but to base it on as much information as they can get and not on rumors.”
Behler noted that many materials that are more hazardous, such as flammable fuel and chemicals used by local industries, already are transported on Michigan City roads. These are not on a restricted route, he said, while Stericycle’s loads would be.
Harmon planned to travel to West Memphis, Ark., this weekend to view Stericycle’s facility there. “I’m not totally convinced that it’s not a good idea,” he said, citing the 30 jobs the company said it would create. Officials said the positions would pay about 25 percent more than the prevailing manufacturing wage.
But many others say they believe Stericycle’s proposal is wrong for Michigan City.
City Councilwoman Sheila Bergerson said that in her four years on the council, she has received more calls on this issue than any other. “It affects everyone,” she said.
Bergerson, D-at large, and Noel Friedley, D-1st Ward, have emerged as the City Council’s leading opponents of the proposal. The two have raised concerns about Stericycle’s techniques that they say have not been adequately addressed.
Bergerson said she wants to see an independent source verify that the company’s method of decontaminating waste is effective. She noted that water from chemotherapy treatments must be heated to 2,000 degrees to be sterilized adequately, while Stericycle’s temperature reaches only 200 degrees.
She also voiced concerns about the company’s method of separating unacceptable waste from the refuse it treats. The company has said it would treat only blood products and items such as needles, syringes, bags, gown, gloves and masks. It said it would not accept radioactive or chemical materials, anatomical waste or laboratory animals.
According to the permit application, the company would determine whether a waste container holds unacceptable waste by weighing the container. Since most medical waste weighs about 3.5 pounds per cubic foot, containers that exceed that would be removed from the process and investigated.
Bergerson said she doubted that gowns and gloves tainted by chemotherapy could be identified that way.
“What is there to prove that the (end product) is really clear of all toxicity?” she asked. “I don’t believe toxicity can be revealed by weight. And who’s going to watch that they are not working in the parking lot, with the chemotherapy waste going into the ground? There’s too much room for error.
“The best-case scenario is in the application: there’d never be a fire, or a need for a police officer to go into the building. There’s never going to be a spill. But when you pin them down on it, they have to admit these things happen.”
Friedley noted discrepancies between the company’s permit application and what company officials told council members during meetings last week. For example, Friedley said, the company stated in its application that it would use the Gary landfill. But last week, officials said otherwise.
Regardless of whether the facility is safe, Bergerson and Friedley say they believe such an operation would negatively affect the image of the community.
Businessman Bill Wendt agreed. He said he fears property values in the South Lake Michigan Industrial Park would plummet if the Stericycle facility were built there. Wendt is president of Midwest Metal Products, which is also located in the park.
Wendt said his employees are expressing concerns about the facility.
“They’re asking me, ‘What are you going to do about it?’” he said. “Almost to a man, nobody wants to see this out here.”
Members of the Fire Department also have concerns. Randy Novak, president of the Michigan City firefighters union, said firefighters are concerned that they may contract diseases if they are called in to fight a fire in the facility. “You don’t know exactly what they’ve got in there,” he said.
Edel Dunn-O-Toole, president of St. Anthony Hospital, says her biggest concern is locating the facility near residential areas. O’Toole, a Long Beach resident, said a number of her neighbors fear the facility would be a “black mark” on the area.
However, O’Toole also said she recognized that alternatives to incinerating medical waste will be needed fairly soon. St. Anthony has its own incinerator, but O’Toole predicted that stiffer federal air pollution regulations soon will make the burning of waste considerably more expensive.
“Maybe it’s not a bad idea, if they’re able to operate it safely,” she said.
Chamber of Commerce President Brad Allamong said residents’ concerns are understandable. “But I just hope that people take an in-depth look at what’s being proposed,” he said.
"It gets down to whether you look at the company as a state-of-the-art method for dealing with an old problem, or if you’re going to call it a medical waste dumping ground.
“Now is the public comment time. I would encourage people to speak out and get their opinions expressed. Let the chips fall where they may on the company. If it stands the test of public opinion, it will have survived on its own.
“I think in some ways this is good for Michigan City,” Allamong added. “It makes us stop and think and verbalize our position."