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County to cut ties with biomedical waste hauler

Commissioners vote to cancel contract with Stericycle Canada in the wake of allegations


by: FILE PHOTO | WOODBURN INDEPENDENT - Covanta Energy Corporation, owner and operator of the waste-to-energy facility in Brooks, has denied the allegations of fetuses being burned for power at its plant. However, Marion County commissioners felt compelled to take action on the matter anyway, to ensure such a practice could never occur.The Marion County Board of Commissioners has moved to cancel its contract with a Canadian provider of medical waste services, which was alleged to have been transporting human fetuses to Oregon to be burned for power at a trash incinerator in Brooks.

A Catholic newspaper in British Columbia sparked a media frenzy last month when it reported that — according to anonymous sources at the B.C. Ministry of Health — the remains of miscarried and aborted babies were being trucked to Marion County to be incinerated for electricity.

Jill Stueck, vice president of marketing and communications for Covanta Energy Corporation, which owns and operates the plant in Brooks, admitted that the waste in question is delivered in sealed containers that her company’s employees are legally prohibited from opening.

However, she said she had been in contact with representatives of the medical waste hauler, Stericycle Canada, the Canadian division of the Lake Forest, Ill.-based Stericycle, and they categorically denied that fetuses were contained in their waste stream.

“It’s not just inaccurate; it’s completely false,” Stueck told the Woodburn Independent.

But the denial was not enough to satisfy Marion County commissioners, who took several actions regarding the matter during their regular meeting Wednesday, including canceling the county’s contract with Stericycle.

The commissioners also amended their solid-waste ordinance to specifically exclude human fetal tissue from approved infectious waste, and Commissioner Sam Brentano said the decision to cut ties with Stericycle Canada stemmed from a desire to keep waste contracts within Oregon or at least the Northwest United States, where the mutual trust and working relationships are stronger.

“If we can provide a service to our region, I’m fine with that, but when it comes to British Columbia, I have no comfort in trusting them on this,” he said. “That’s just my personal opinion. We’d like to have that confidence, but I don’t know how we could, other than tearing into the containers. I have no confidence that fetuses haven’t been in there.”

Brentano made it clear that he was not disputing Covanta — which he called “a wonderful partner” — but he does believe fetuses were present in the material transported by the Canadian contractor, a belief he said was based on intuition, not hard evidence.

“I believe they were in there,” he said. “If it didn’t happen, that’s wonderful. I hope it never happens. But what we did was everything we could do in this last week to make sure it couldn’t happen.”

Declaring the idea of fetuses being burned for power “morally reprehensible,” the board approved an order prohibiting the acceptance and destruction of all medical waste at the facility.

Under the terms of the order, the 15 to 20 companies that contract with the county to transport medical waste (with the exception of Stericycle) must meet new criteria to continue operating, including that their contracts be amended to prohibit the transfer of human fetal tissue, that they provide certification that their waste stream does not contain fetal tissue and that they allow inspections for verification purposes.

“We’re asking for certification,” Brentano said. “And we will have the ability to — as gross as it is — examine the manifests of boxes.”

Jolene Kelly, a spokeswoman for the board of commissioners, said that, overall, medical waste comprises only a tiny portion of the material that is consumed at the plant: about 0.01 percent.

“Medical waste is a very small percentage of the overall operation,” she said.

In a previous interview, Stueck said her company was fully in agreement with the county’s decision to halt the transport of medical waste while the allegations were being investigated.

“They’re taking a stand on it, and that’s their decision, and Covanta is absolutely in complete agreement with them,” she said. “They have suspended the program, and we are 100 percent in alignment with their decision. We’re all horrified by this whole concept.”

Stericycle did not respond to requests for comment last week.