ST. GEORGE – Officials demanded change Monday night after learning that untreated medical waste is being dumped into the local landfill.
The issue was raised during a meeting of the Administrative Control Board of the Washington County Solid Waste Special Service District #1. Members of the board, which includes St. George City Mayor Jon Pike, City Council members and representatives from the Washington County Commission, expressed concern after learning that several local companies are bringing medical waste to the Washington County Landfill where it is buried without being treated.
State law allows up to 200 pounds of medical waste at one time to be dumped into landfills without first being treated by either incineration or sterilization, processes which render the biohazardous material noninfectious, said Neil Schwendiman, Washington County Solid Waste district manager.
However, at Monday’s meeting, some board members said they didn’t know the medical waste was being dumped in the landfill, stating they were horrified when they recently found out.
“This absolutely shocked me when I found out,” St. George City Councilwoman Michele Randall said. “I just couldn’t believe that we have been doing this all these years. We have to makes changes. This is a serious health and public safety issue.”
The Environmental Protection Agency defines medical waste as health care waste that may be contaminated by blood, bodily fluids, body parts or other potentially infectious materials. It is generated at health care facilities such as hospitals, physicians’ offices, dental practices, blood banks, veterinary hospitals and clinics and medical research facilities and laboratories.
Kyle Preston, owner of Prestons Medical Waste Disposal, told the board that the untreated medical waste poses several threats to the environment and human life. Specifically, he pointed to the risk of an earthquake that could cause a break in the landfill dam that prevents the waste from leaking into the ground and contaminating the environment and water supply.
“One good earthquake, which we’ve had, and that dam can break,” Preston said. “That’s a risk and a safety and health issue to this county and one we have no business taking.”
Improper management of discarded needles and other sharp objects can present a serious health risk to the public and waste workers who may be exposed to potential needle stick injuries and infection when containers break open, Preston added. Used needles can transmit diseases such as hepatitis and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
Board members questioned whether local medical clinics and physicians know that their medical waste is being dumped in the landfill. Preston said he had spoken to many of them that were unaware of what is happening.
Several residents and officials in the meeting Monday said they believe it is “misleading” if the owners of transport companies are not informing their clients where the waste is going. Washington County resident Kristen Onofrei said she doesn’t think most medical clinics or doctors are aware of where their medical waste is going or that they can take it to the dump themselves. She said:
I mean, why pay someone to do it when they could save money and do it themselves? These transport companies are charging tons of money, and I believe they are deceiving their clients by not divulging to them that the medical waste they pick up is going to the landfill without being treated. Is it legal for them to dump it? Yes, but just because it’s legal doesn’t make it ethical.
While state law allows for the dumping of certain quantities of untreated medical waste, Washington County Solid Waste board members and local governments can change city ordinances and landfill policies to prohibit the activity entirely – something the board all agreed needed to be done “sooner than later.”
“The quicker we get this changed the better,” St. George City Councilman Joe Bowcutt said. “I think it’s time for change and we need to do it fast and we need to do it now so this isn’t happening anymore.”
Despite the board’s resolve in making changes, Schwendiman advised they use caution. Preston is the owner of the only medical waste disposal company in Southern Utah, and Schwendiman said the board’s actions could raise concerns.
“We have to be careful in implementing this change though because we don’t want anything we do to look like we’re pushing business to one company or favoring one business over another,” Schwendiman said.
Randall, however, argued the transport companies are not being forced to take the waste to Prestons Medical Waste Disposal but have other options.
“No one is stopping these transport companies from buying the same exact equipment that the Prestons have invested their money in and taking care of the waste themselves,” Randall said. “They have the right to do that.”
She later said the companies also have the choice to send the medical waste elsewhere, such as Las Vegas or Salt Lake City.
If the laws and policies are changed, Schwendiman questioned how the restrictions would be enforced.
Bowcutt suggested the board look at places outside of Utah where the laws are tougher on this issue.
St. George City Mayor Jon Pike, however, opposed going outside of the state and pointed to examples of several other counties where the local ordinances and policies have already been changed to restrict the dumping of untreated medical waste.
Pike recommended the board take some time to explore these areas and find out how they implemented and subsequently enforce the laws.
Reece Demille, a representative from Republic Services, volunteered to do the research and said he would bring back his findings at the next meeting on Nov. 13. The board agreed, giving Demille the OK to move forward.
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