This is the first in three-part series on Storey County’s Decision to bring Stericycle into our County.
Stericycle Special Use Permit Approval Creates Controversy In Storey County.
On August 6th, 2020, the Storey County Planning Commission met to discuss a Special Use Permit (SUP) for Stericycle, a medical hazardous waste disposal company.
The Planning Commission voted to approve Stericycle’s SUP 5-1 and the matter was forwarded to the Storey County Board of Commissioners for approval. On August 20th, 2020 Commissioners Jay Carmona and Marshall McBride voted 2-0 to approve the SUP application.
Commissioner Lance Gilman had to recuse himself from the vote because he was in the process of selling the land to Stericycle to house to the proposed facility.
The SUP was originally slated for approval at the Planning Commission’s in July but at that meeting, it was determined the SUP agenda item had not been improperly noticed after Blockchains, Inc. lodged an objection.
Planning Commission Discussion
During the Planning Commission’s discussion on the SUP, Stericycle presented to the board a history of the company and explained how the proposed incinerator had wended its way from Utah to Arizona to Las Vegas and finally up here at The Richest Place On Earth.
Stericycle was represented by Executive Vice President Dominic Culotta. He assured the Planning Commission the company plan to reinvent itself over the past 18 months was proceeding according to plan. Former UPS executive Cindy Miller took the reins of Stericycle and she brought Culotta with her from UPS during the transition. Culotta suggested that he and Miller along with together with other new appointments represent a complete reboot of the company’s culture.
Culotta explained that Stericycle was born from the fact that used needles were washing up on the beaches across our nation. From their humble beginnings, Stericycle has grown to a company whose hundreds of locations across the country process and dispose of biohazardous medical waste, drugs seized by the DEA and Law Enforcement, human body parts, and shredded documents, among other many other things.
According to Culotta, the state of the art Storey County facility will employ 30 people processing 15-20 tractor-trailers of waste daily.
Opposition to Stericycle
The only comments from the public opposed awarding the Stericycle SUP. They came from Blockchains, Sierra Springs Opportunity Fund (in the form of a letter), and article author Sam Toll.
Blockchains legal council Matthew Digesti delivered opposition to the proposed facility. He referred to his in-depth document in which Blockchains covered some of the things that Stericycle has been involved in that raise questions about the company.
The thrust of Digesti’s comments surrounded Stericycle’s track record and corporate culture. Stericycle has been in business for two decades and has racked up a concerning number of violations and fines. Digesti focused on details surrounding Stericycle’s operations in Salt Lake City, North Las Vegas, on a reservation in Arizona, and the plant in Rancho Cordova, California whose permit was not renewed. Digesti suggested Stericycle’s actions reflect a culture that is unconcerned with the safety of the public and its employees.
Sierra Springs Opportunity Fund
Corrado de Gasparis of Sierra Springs Opportunity Fund and CEO of Comstock Mining wrote to the planning commission opposing the Stericycle SUP.
“Incinerators pollute. California did not want the Stericycle incinerator. North Las Vegas did not want the Stericycle incinerator. Salt Lake City did not want the Stericycle incinerator. Tooele did not want the Stericycle incinerator. Arizona did not want the Stericycle incinerator. Yet we are supposed to believe that it is acceptable for our county. Are our citizens expendable?”
My opposition centered on inviting Stericycle to the Comstock would invite other hazardous/polluting companies to set up shop in Storey County. If I had done the research for this article before my comments, I would have hammered on Stericycle’s astonishingly awful record of violations of the law and fines.
Responding to my comments, Storey County Manager Austin Osborne confirmed that Storey County is a place that currently houses over a dozen hazardous companies including refineries, hazardous chemical processing companies, and multiple incinerators.
Osborne explained, “We do have a quite number of companies at Tahoe Reno Industrial Center that are classified one way or another. In fact, this board has considered another medical waste processing facility, we have a company of out there that deals with high volumes of ammunitions and manufacturing military arms, we have a company that deals with hydrogen and gas to diesel processing”.
Osborne continued, “We have another company out there that deals with the transfer of medical waste and other municipal waste into diesel–a very volatile program–that requires a special use (permit) We have another company out there that manufactures gasoline and diesel, in fact, if you go to any Golden Gate Gas Station, all the fuel they sell is manufactured here at TRIC”.
Osborne concluded, “I’ll note too that there are other companies that don’t require SUP that have high volumes of ammonia and other hazardous chemicals that are located out at TRIC”.
Planning Commission Board Member Perspectives
I wanted to understand the research behind and how the conclusions were made by the board. I reached out to two of the members of the Planning Commission Board, Chairman Jim Hindle, and Larry Prater, and asked them to clarify their positions on the matter.
“I Googled Them and Didn’t Find Much”
I reached out to Jim Hindle, chairman of the Storey County Planning Commission. We talked for about a half an hour discussing the decision to approve the Stericycle SUP.
In the course of that conversation, Hindle remarked, “The Blockchains document was actually pretty fictional. In one paragraph, in particular, Blockchains had a quote from our master plan and the first sentence was pulled directly out of the master plan which was about (zoning designation) Industrial 2 (I2). However, the balance of the paragraph was written to lead the reader to believe it was also part of the masterplan because it didn’t have any differentiation or quotations anything else. The rest of the paragraph was their fabrication of what they wanted it to say, and it wasn’t the masterplan. Blockchains has an agenda to drive the industrial park to become a technology park.”
When asked, Hindle said that he googled Stericycle and wasn’t concerned with what he found, “What I found was that Stericycle and the different state environmental agencies had pretty good relationships. Any time there was a hiccup, they worked it out to the state’s satisfaction”.
Hindle explained, “I looked at a case in California and wasn’t really concerned. Stericycle had a hiccup that they self-reported, they got together with the state and worked out an action plan, and the problem was resolved. Yet when you read what California non-profit environmental groups said about the same event, you would think you were dealing with a whole different episode. They claimed that it was catastrophic, it was dangerous, it was detrimental to public safety. I immediately discounted anything that was written by a non-profit group because they were all incendiary”.
Hindle continued, “I didn’t look at Stericycle as being a bad character, bad operator, can’t be trusted, looks to cut corners. I just didn’t see the one to one between what was being built up by Blockchains and some of the other people that commented”.
Hindle concluded, “They still have to jump hurdles with the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection (NDEP). They still have to submit a site plan that complies with the SUP, State, and Federal regulations.
I’m looking at it in the context of the Industrial Park. Is there a risk? Is there a probability there could be a release? Absolutely. But we’re not dealing with Ebola and Tuberculosis or anything else that they are burning. It’s low-level doctor’s office waste. I don’t see the risk is what everyone else is blowing this up to be”.
I2 Heavy Industrial is Designed For This Type Of Use.
In her Board comment, Summer Pellet looked at the intent of the Planning designation and asserted the proposed Stericycle facility is the type of installation envisioned by the I2 designation.
Pellet said, “From a planning perspective, this lot has been designated I2 since 1999. What I see is that some of the issues that this type of facility can generate have been mitigated. I looked at some of the (staff recommended) conditions of approval and as (County Manager) Austin just said, they’re going to be subject to Federal regulations, they are going to be regulated by the EPA, they are going to be regulated by the NDEP. From a planning perspective, I rely on those agencies to do their job to make sure that all the standards that are in place at the State and Federal level.
It’s heavy industrial zoning and heavy industrial land use. This is the type of use that I believe fits into the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center”.
We’re not A Bunch of Rubes
“The reason I voted against this is because I wanted to show these guys we’re not a bunch of Rubes. You aren’t going to come here and roll us”.
As the lone dissenter, Larry Prater had a different perspective. Prater explained, “As an international outfit as big as they (Stericycle) seem to be, you are always going to have glitches at various locations and things. It seems like Utah was a glitch, to me Vegas wasn’t a glitch. They claimed there wasn’t the right infrastructure and that the Las Vegas facility wasn’t a good fit.
As an engineer for 45 years, when I went to set up a new facility, there was a pretty simple checklist I went through. The first thing you look at is is there access? The next thing is utilities. It’s a pretty simple checklist.
Prater continued, “In light of this, i asked “So it’s just a coincidence that you (Stericycle) pulled your permit request because of ‘inadequate infrastructure’ at the same time Vegas planning staff recommended against granting your permit? They didn’t have a good answer.”
Prater summed up by saying, “The reason I voted against this is because I wanted to show these guys we’re not a bunch of Rubes. You aren’t going to come here and roll us”.
Stericycle’s Record Over The Past Two Decades
Stericycle began operations in 2002. Any company in business that long will encounter turbulence. During my 25 years with The Electric Page, I found myself in Small Claims Court about once a year. While I tried to resolve every situation, sometimes it is impossible to meet the satisfaction of every client or vendor. Happily, I won all but one case and recovered much of the money due to me.
Stericycle doesn’t seem to have the same experience. In looking at the information available on the internet, these issues roughly group up into three categories; tangles with customers, tangles with neighbors, and tangles with the government.
Tangles With Customers
In 2017, the US District Court in Illinois awarded Stericycle customers $295 million in damages for overbilling practices.
The class-action suit detailed Stericycle’s electronic billing and accounting software system, called Tower, which was allegedly set to default to an 18 percent “automated price increase” (“API”) for “small-quantity” customers. According to the suit, those accounts made up 97 percent of Stericycle’s customers worldwide.
Following the imposition of the API, the suit claims, Stericycle’s customer service department received a large volume of complaint calls and customer service representatives were told to give false reasons for the price increases in order to get customers to pay. If customers continued to refuse to pay, representatives and customer retention personnel were instructed to give “price reductions” with the goal of getting customers to pay as much of the API as possible.
The court concluded that Stericycle also improperly increased prices by charging a number of fees and surcharges, labeled as fuel costs or environmental fees. However, the suit claims these charges were not connected to actual costs, which is why Stericycle often hid them from customers on invoices by bundling them with its flat fees.
Complaints from the Better Business Bureau were considered in the class action suit.
One of the great things about the inter-web is that you can praise or roast a company and let the entire world know how you feel. Forever. Yelp, Angie’s List and the Better Business Bureau (BBB) are all places you can go to learn more about a company before you decide to do business with them.
In looking at the recent dates of the complaints on the BBB site, one might conclude that the $295 million fine and the company reboot have had little effect on the way the company conducts business today.
Better Business Bureau Reviews.
There are 24 reviews on the BBB site and all are negative. This one is typical of the reviews listed:
“Worst company I’ve ever dealt with. They are doing business like it’s 1990 and as if nobody has any other options or expects businesses to be honest. Beware of long contracts that auto-renew, prices that auto-escalate with no notice and no recourse, where cancellation must occur within a 30-day time frame before the auto-renew. This is a classic monopoly business if I ever saw one. I literally waited 9 months for today to cancel. But after 12 years, I am finally liberated from the greedy shackles of Stericycle.”
There are 112 complaints on the BBB site. This one is typical of the complaints listed:
“I canceled our service with this company because the cost was too high (way above the industry standard) I have a small office with very little medical waste and am not able to afford the constant increase in pricing and hidden fees. Our last pick up was in January of 2020. All services rendered were paid in full. We have recently been being harassed with phone calls claiming we owe money for services or that we need to pay a termination fee for not renewing our contract. A one year contract was discussed with Dustin in February of 2019. We have paid for the one year of service upfront and owe nothing more. We would just like for our account to be officially closed and the balance adjusted to zero as we have paid for the service that was provided to us. Stericycle is a very unethical and fraudulent company.”
How you treat your customer is a clear indication of how you do business. To their credit, Stericycle has engaged with all of the complaints, and many have been resolved to the satisfaction of the complainants. However, the BBB complaints were a key component of a class-action lawsuit which I will flesh out in part three.
As we all know, some folks have different levels of tolerance and persistence. For every person who got mad enough to air their complaint with the BBB, how many didn’t? From the tone of many of the complaints, it was only after weeks or months of trying to resolve the problems with Stericycle directly did they finally get some relief by taking the matter to the BBB’s public square and calling them out for the world to see.
Dozens and dozens and dozens of these complaints have been registered with the BBB since the company’s reboot. While it takes time for culture changes to trickle down to the front line, from the looks of the complaints made in 2020, it doesn’t appear as if the effort is as effective as the company is suggesting.
In part two of this three-part series, we will review Stericycle’s tangles with the public. Part Three will look at their tangles with the Government.