Reflections on the Stericycle Closure by UPHE Co-founder Tim Wagner

UPHE Co-founder, Tim Wagner, wrote a lovely piece reflecting on the recent victory of the Stericycle closure of their medical waste incinerator. Read below:

I rejoice with many Utahns and my former neighbors in the recently announced closure of the Stericycle medical waste incinerator. When I heard the news, it took me back about 30+ years when I was preparing to restart my life’s chosen career from construction to environmental advocacy. 

The class was “Society and the Environment” and my first real exposure to the relationship between environmental policy and the daily lives of average Americans. It was also the first time I heard the term “externalities.” The professor was discussing the process that government agencies often go through when analyzing the costs vs benefits of a proposed project, such as a new highway or a newly proposed heavy metals mine. 

Oxford defines externalities as “a side effect or consequence of an industrial or commercial activity that affects other parties without this being reflected in the cost of the goods or services involved.” Years later, I heard another definition in the form of a phrase: “Privatize the profits, socialize the costs.” Over the course of my career, I saw this definition play out far too many times. Perhaps it wasn’t just coincidence when, in 2014 as I took over as executive director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, that Stericycle really began to rear its ugly head in North Salt Lake. 

When we formed the organization around 2007, our main focus was on the principal cause of Salt Lake Valley’s poor air quality: traffic. Little did we know at the time that this horribly dirty medical waste incinerator was venting off some of the county’s most dangerous toxins on a daily basis, until we started getting calls from local residents, complaining about what they could smell, and worse, what they could see. It was then I realized that we were dealing with a real-life, in-your-face-and-lungs example of “privatizing the profits while socializing the costs.” 

So began a nine-year battle, with ultimately a positive outcome. It goes without saying that these kinds of victories don’t happen often enough in the struggle for a healthy environment. But when they do, it is definitely worth celebrating. I tip my hat to cofounder and long-time partner in UPHE, Dr. Brian Moench, who relentlessly birddogged Stericycle and the regulatory agencies (Utah Division of Air Quality and the EPA) to do something. The citizens of North Salt Lake are to also be thanked and congratulated. Without their first raising the alarms over Stericycle and their continual engagement over the years, it’s doubtful that a victory would have been possible. 

To me, this win represents how our fragile democracy is supposed to work. Citizens recognizing a problem that needs addressing, coming together and speaking out, and then working with regulators to make the needed change for the better. 

I strongly encourage you to continue your donations to UPHE. As this Stericycle victory shows, clearly they are helping to protect your family’s health from air pollution and many other types of environmental contaminants.

Tim Wagner