Company can’t be trusted with community’s safety, say skeptics
Irate residents and city officials leveled withering criticism at four representatives of a giant medical waste treatment company in a public meeting on Oct. 7 at Hostos Community College, saying they would urge the state to shut down its Port Morris facility.
Stericycle Inc. has asked the state’s environmental conservation dept. to renew the permit for its waste transfer facility, which it has operated at East 138th St. and Locust Ave. since 1999, and allow it to store hazardous waste there for up to 10 days at a time.
Residents questioned the company’s ability to handle toxic spills and sharply criticized its lack of a flood mitigation plan. They bristled when told that, at three feet above ground, the plant is safe from flooding. In addition, they expressed concern that the company has run the Port Morris site without a permanent certificate of occupancy from the dept. of buildings for over a decade.
The company officials, seated onstage at the college’s theater, repeatedly tried to defuse the public’s anger. They minimized any new risks the plan introduces, insisting it calls for placing chemicals that trucks have been bringing to the plant all along, onto pallets to store for up to 10 days before being transported.
When one of the representatives seemed to downplay the toxicity of the chemicals the company says it wants to store at the site, one attendee, Martin Rogers, told him “If this stuff is so fabulous, take it home to Long Island with you tonight.”
Rogers, a lifelong Mott Haven resident and cofounder of the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition that fought to keep out an incinerator at the same site under different ownership two decades ago, accused Stericycle of trying to pull a fast one by requesting a permit now for what he said it has been doing all along—illegally.
“You’re already doing it; don’t lie to us,” he said. “You can’t even open a bodega without a CO (certificate of occupancy); how do you have the gall to open without [one]?”
The hazardous waste the company says it wants to store on pallets , the representatives explained, is a solution called developer and fixer, used in the processing of medical x-rays. According to the National Institute of Health, those chemicals can cause or worsen asthma.
“That you want to modify that permit,” to store chemicals “known to cause and exacerbate our major health crisis, is appalling,” said Mott Haven resident Corrine Kohut, pointing out that the neighborhood’s asthma rates are staggeringly high.
Stericycle’s vice president of corporate communications, Jennifer Koenig, said the chemicals are transported in sealed plastic tubs on the company’s trucks. Residents worried any traffic accidents resulting in spills on the trucks’ route between the plant and the Bruckner Expressway could be disastrous.
“There’s always a possibility of a spill” said Anthony Winn, chief operating officer for Melrose advocacy organization Nos Quedamos, adding a spill could poison “our groundwater, our sewage system, our parks. We have a long legacy in the Bronx. We call them brownfields.”
When asked how the company would respond in the event of a spill, Bill Nolton, the facility’s Massachusetts-based regional environmental manager, said, “I can’t look into the future.” Koenig told the group that there are “safety data sheets” with protocols for each of the toxins the company handles, if a spill were to occur.
The lack of a certificate of occupancy alarmed the city officials at the meeting.
Wilhelm Ronda, the Bronx Borough President’s Office’s planning and development director, called it “highly unusual” that Stericycle has been working with a temporary certificate of occupancy “for such an extended period.”
Nolton responded that the lack of a permanent certificate of occupancy was a mere oversight caused by a paperwork snafu. But City Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo said it called the company’s credibility into question, sternly adding she would lobby her colleagues in the Council to oppose Stericycle’s permit request. She and other speakers brought up the company’s legal problems in Utah, where the attorney general is investigating claims it has violated air quality standards in a residential area and endangered workers’ health.
“It’s a fundamental administrative function that you failed to accomplish,” said Arroyo, whose district includes Melrose and Hunts Point. “What does that say about how you run your facility?”