By Nicole Warburton
Deseret Morning News
NORTH SALT LAKE — By the end of October, two new charter schools will open doors here in what some residents say is predominately an industrial area.
One school, Spectrum Academy, is in the middle of a housing development bordered by industrial sites. The other, Legacy Preparatory Academy, is being built across the street from a sewage-treatment plant and just east of the Legacy Parkway now under construction.
City officials worry that students at Legacy Preparatory will be exposed to strong odors from the sewage-treatment plant. And some residents and parents have concerns about the proximity of both schools to a medical-waste incinerator and several oil refineries.
But a new state law has taken jurisdiction over land use for charter schools out of the city's hands, said Blaine Gehring, North Salt Lake planner.
"That's why these charter schools are going in sites like this," he said. "We can't really say no to them."
Under HB172, approved this past March, the zoning requirements that a city can impose on charter schools are limited. According to that law, "a municipality may subject a charter school to standards within each zone pertaining to setback, height, bulk and massing regulations, off-site parking, curb cut, traffic circulation and construction staging."
Other limitations, such as proximity to industrial sites, aren't considered. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Jim Ferrin, R-Orem, said Friday that the measure was an attempt to clarify existing law.
Legacy Preparatory will be located within a half-mile of the medical-waste incinerator and three miles from several refineries. The incinerator, operated by Stericycle, is one of 72 medical-waste incinerators still operating in the United States. Stericycle, based in Illinois, is the nation's largest medical-waste disposal company.
Nine years ago, about 2,400 such incinerators operated across the nation, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But most have closed in recent years, due to increased state and federal regulation and outcry from residents. Stericycle's North Salt Lake plant now accepts waste from several states, including Arizona and California, where incinerators have shut down.
School officials at Legacy Preparatory said in an interview last week that the proximity of their school to the sewage-treatment plant and other industrial sites wasn't a concern. "Why should it be a concern?" asked Margo Cowley, developer for Legacy.
But before beginning construction, Legacy Preparatory's board members signed and sent a letter to North Salt Lake, cknowledging that they were building in an industrial area. A second letter was sent to the school's developer, waiving any rights to sue.
"The Board understands and is fully aware of the location of the Treatment Plant and does not intend to bring, and will not bring, any claim against the Treatment Plant for public nuisance, private nuisance, or other similar claims arising out of the Treatment Plant's normal and ordinary operations," the letter said.
While city officials said Stericycle isn't a threat, at least two autism specialists and a handful of parents — including a former school founder — said the location of the two schools is akin to educating children at a "toxic waste dump."
This Tuesday, North Salt Lake resident Crystal Folgmann has scheduled a public meeting to discuss Stericycle and its proximity to the schools and the Foxboro subdivision. The meeting will be at 7 p.m. at Wasatch Peak Academy, 414 Cutler Drive in North Salt Lake. Wasatch Peak is within a mile of Stericycle.
Presenters at the meeting will include school officials and representatives from Stericycle, the Utah Division of Air Quality, the Sierra Club, activist group Greenaction, and possibly the city staff.
Meanwhile, Dr. Bryan Jepson, an autism specialist and former emergency-room doctor, said that while he supports the purpose behind Spectrum Academy, he would never send his child to the school because it's too close to environmental polluters. Jepson was in Park City this past week to speak at the annual conference of the U.S. Autism & Asperger Association.
"I don't know what would be the best place, but if I were to think of the worst, that's about it," said Jepson, who moved from Utah to Texas about six months ago.
Dr. Kenneth P. Stoller, president of the International Hyperbaric Medical Association, who was also at the autism conference in Park City, said he, too, would worry about the school's location: "You don't put the most susceptible members of society into what could be a toxic waste dump."
For Stoller, the biggest concern for parents of autistic children is Stericycle. The plant, which emits far less pollutants than what is allowed under state law, is known to send mercury, lead and dioxin into the air. At least two published studies show that there are more cases of autism in areas that have higher levels of mercury and other heavy metals in the air, Stoller said.
The latest stack tests for Stericycle showed that it emitted about 0.15 mg/dscm of mercury, according to the Utah Division of Air Quality. Under state regulations, the incinerator is allowed to emit 0.55 mg/dscm (or dry standard cubic meter).
A spokeswoman for Stericycle did not return a call for comment Friday. North Salt Lake City officials said the plant is a harmless neighbor that complies with all rules and regulations.
But for Hanneke Leonard, one of the founders of Spectrum Academy and a former board member for the school, it's too great a risk. Last month, she pulled her two children out of the school and another child out of Legacy Preparatory after learning of the proximity to the incinerator.
She said kids with autism already have impaired pathways for getting rid of toxins, as well as compromised immune systems.
Shelly Carter, president of Spectrum Academy's board, said students will be coming to the school from as far as North Ogden, Orem and Tooele. Both Legacy Preparatory and Spectrum Academy have waiting lists for students to get into the schools. Spectrum plans to accept 210 students and Legacy has room for about 500 students.
"The general impression I am getting from my parents is they are so desperate just to have a situation that provides better educational opportunity for our kids and are really just looking for something to meet their educational needs — the rest is not playing much into the picture," Carter said.