Cobb County writes the book on bipartisan crisis management

Sterigenics President Philip Macnabb waits his turn to talk to a packed house at the start of a community meeting to address concerns over toxic emissions at Campbell Middle School in Smyrna on Tuesday. STEVE SCHAEFER / FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

If you're tired of all the showboating and the dearth of results, if you've become too jaded to believe that divided government can be effective government, here's a little advice.

Stop looking at Washington D.C.

Shift your gaze a little closer to home, toward south Cobb County, where a handful of state and local officials are writing a textbook on bipartisan crisis management.

A few ingredients have been necessary. The foundation is the approach of 2020, an election year. Add to this a county that has, at the very least, turned purple in its politics.

Bring in an army of well-informed citizens kept in the dark — by federal and state government — about an industrial plant in their midst that has been sending cancer-causing emissions into the air that hovers over their homes, schools, churches and parks.

And for a little zest, toss in a map that shows the reach of a heretofore unadvertised danger zone that includes some of the richest and poorest neighborhoods in metro Atlanta, and extends across the Chattahoochee River and I-75 — in the direction of the Governor’s Mansion.

This danger zone may or may not include SunTrust Park, but certainly wraps in the headquarters of Home Depot. “That’s 10,000 employees right there,” said Bob Ott, a Cobb County commissioner.

Suddenly, we have a formula for multi-government bipartisanship.

Ott is a Republican. His southern district includes Sterigenics, a 30-worker medical sterilization facility that uses ethylene oxide.

Commissioner, District Two Bob Ott talks to a packed house during a community meeting to address concerns over toxic emissions at Campbell Middle School in Smyrna Tuesday, July 30, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

On July 19, a team of health care journalists – Georgia Health News and WebMD – reported that three years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency added ethylene oxide to "a list of chemicals that definitely caused cancer."

In 2018, the EPA “flagged 109 census tracts across the country where cancer risks were elevated” – increased risks that were driven mostly by ethylene oxide, the health care outlets reported. Two of those census tracts were along the Cobb-Fulton border. Another was in Covington, on metro Atlanta’s southeast side, near where Becton Dickinson, another sterilizing facility, is located.

Neither the EPA nor its Georgia equivalent, the state Environmental Protection Division, made the new information public. Georgia Health News and WebMD had to pry it out.

Ott admits he was a little slow to react to the information. He’s an airline pilot and was absorbing the news from overseas. At a county commission meeting four days after it surfaced, he characterized the situation as “a state issue, not a county issue.”

But he quickly realized that this wasn’t the case. Ott’s partners for the last two weeks have been state Rep. Erick Allen and state Sen. Jen Jordan, both Democrats whose districts overlap Ott’s. All three, incidentally, are up for re-election in 2020.

“The political affiliation is kind of an afterthought,” Ott said. He gave Allen, a health care consultant who just won his House seat last year, credit for making sure that partisan divides didn’t develop. “It’s just a very good collaboration,” Allen agreed.

As of Wednesday, all three reported that they hadn't had any contact with Gov. Brian Kemp's office. But a political turning point had already arrived the night before, when hundreds of local residents packed the theater of Campbell Middle School – for the opportunity to question Sterigenics President Phil Macnabb.

All seats were filled long before the meeting began, forcing a fire marshal to order dozens to be turned away. The Cobb County Commission streamed the meeting live on its YouTube channel. You can still watch it.

Macnabb told his skeptical audience that public safety was his company’s primary concern, and that the Sterigenics plant was currently adding only 226 pounds of ethylene oxide into the atmosphere each year – far below its permitted level.

There were two troubling things about his statement. Only at the end of the 90-minute meeting did Macnabb acknowledge that the company had reduced the amount of ethylene oxide it leaked into the air in 2016, about the time the EPA had declared the substance cancer-causing. In 2015, the plant had injected 3,574 pounds of ethylene oxide into the atmosphere.

“That’s not building trust,” said Jaha Howard, a member of the Cobb County school board who was emceeing the event. He was looking at Macnabb at the time.

Then there is the fact that these figures are self-reported, by Sterigenics. In that first report by Georgia Health News and WebMD, state officials said the EPD had no plans to do its own air testing.

And so local government began improvising.

From the stage, Smyrna City Councilman Tim Gould announced that his city would spring for an independent air test. Soon afterwards, I felt a tap on my shoulder. “It’s the right thing to do,” said Smyrna Mayor Max Bacon, dressed in his Atlanta Braves shirt and cap.

Jen Jordan, the Democratic state senator, explained the necessity to the audience. “The deal is that EPD is not going to require [Sterigenics] to do independent testing, period. We know that. So what we’re going to have to do on the local level is come together and get it done. It’ll take a 30-day period – we’ll try to figure it out. We’ll get Fulton on board, the city of Atlanta, Smyrna – we’ll do whatever we need to do,” she said.

Allen would express much the same sentiment later. EPD, he said, has “the same trust deficit as Sterigenics.”

State Rep. Erick Allen, D-Vinings, talks to a packed house meeting to address concerns over toxic emissions at Campbell Middle School in Smyrna on Tuesday. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Did I mention that 2020 is an election year? Cobb County Commissioner Lisa Cupid is a Democrat. Next year, she intends to challenge Mike Boyce, the Republican incumbent commission chairman.

At Tuesday’s gathering, Cupid stood and said she would ask the county put up money for the independent testing, too.

The next morning, I picked up the phone to find Boyce on the other end. The commission chairman said he’d already put a county contribution for testing on the next meeting agenda. “We need to pull out all the stops on this one,” Boyce said. “This is why we have things like contingency funds — for emergencies just like this.”

Boyce, too, expressed his appreciation for Allen, the Democratic state lawmaker, who has kept him informed of developments.

Soon afterwards, I spoke again with Ott, the county commissioner. The next town hall meeting on the topic of ethylene oxide would be on Aug. 19 at the Cobb County Civic Center in Marietta, he confirmed. “It’s the only venue that has enough seats,” Ott said.

Representatives from the federal EPA and state EPD will be on hand, Ott said, along with someone from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The episode is a reminder that grassroots influence, while often counterfeited, can be both real and powerful. On Thursday afternoon, a spokeswoman for Brian Kemp issued a first statement from the governor’s office on the ethylene oxide situation.

“From the beginning, the administration has worked closely with local, state and federal partners to investigate these findings, identify solutions, and keep residents updated throughout the process,” said Candice Broce. “We will work around the clock to address this situation and keep Georgia families safe.”

It’s worth noting that several members of Kemp’s staff – and their families – live in those three census tracts flagged by the EPA last year. We’re presuming they were kept in the dark, too.

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