Inside the Georgia political split over how to curb toxic gas pollution



Shortly after a tense town hall meeting about cancer-causing pollution at the Sterigenics factory in Cobb County ended, Democratic lawmakers renewed their demands that Gov. Brian Kemp shut down the plant until more testing is complete.

A day later on the other side of metro Atlanta, most of the politicians representing the BD Bard plant in Covington had a decidedly different response: A call for more air-quality sampling, but no insistence that the plant be shuttered.

Those reactions are a snapshot of how lawmakers are grappling with a recent WebMD and Georgia Health News report that exposed the potential of increased long-term risk of cancer from ethylene oxide emissions around both facilities.

The fallout has triggered a prickly debate about environment, industry and pollution that doesn’t strictly split along familiar party lines.

In Cobb, Democrats including state Rep. Erick Allen, state Sen. Jen Jordan and U.S. Rep. David Scott all demanded the plant be closed until testing proves the air is safe. Allen, D-Smyrna, said Kemp should follow the lead of Illinois, which closed a Sterigenics facility last year after similar concerns were raised.

This is not a bipartisan sentiment; U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, a Republican who represents a swath of Cobb County, wants the EPA to pony up more data on the Sterigenics fallout but hasn’t called for the plant’s closure.

Over in Covington, lawmakers took a different approach. State Rep. Dave Belton, a Republican whose district includes a chunk of Newton County, said he wanted "more and clearer information." U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Monroe, urged the EPA to issue new regulations for facilities that use the gas.

Several local Democrats, too, stopped short of calling for the plant to close. State Rep. Pam Dickerson, D-Conyers, is one of them. She said she wants to see an independent study on air quality before she takes that step.

“I really don’t know all the facts. I only know what I’ve read in news articles,” said Dickerson. “I want more understanding of what’s going on and I’d like to see evidence of what the state is doing and more data from independent testing.”

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

‘Big talk’

Why the contrast in responses?

Residents near BD Bard are no less infuriated by the state’s handling of the ethylene oxide emissions, and hundreds packed a Tuesday meeting headlined by an EPA official who admitted his agency should have warned residents sooner.

But politicians in Newton County seem more willing to take a wait-and-see approach. Republican state Sen. Brian Strickland said the local delegation is making decisions with an eye toward what “we can legally accomplish.”

“Our goal is to immediately reduce emissions while we work toward the best way to measure what is in the air,” said Strickland, who represents parts of Newton County. “Big talk isn’t going to help the citizens if we can’t deliver real accountability.”

One explanation for the dueling responses might be rooted in economics.

The area surrounding the Sterigenics facility in Smyrna is densely populated and affluent, and residents there have fewer ties to the factory, which employs a few dozen people.

The BD Bard plant in Covington, by contrast, plays a central role in the city's civic life and with roughly 1,000 staffers, it is listed as Newton County's second-largest employer.

“It’s a huge company. Do they need to be just shut down? No,” said Scott Jay, the chair of the Newton County GOP and a former staffer at the plant. “That would hurt a lot of people who depend on them. It’s part of our life.”

Covington’s leaders, too, have mostly closed ranks around the plant, arguing that BD Bard isn’t violating any laws. Still, said City Councilwoman Susie Keck, local officials won’t be cowed by the firm’s influence.

“The safety of our citizens is our priority,” she said. “It is insulting for anyone to think we would not hold a company to the highest standards simply because they were a large employer in our community.”



‘Moved the ball’

Though state law gives authorities leeway to shut down the plants, Kemp is unlikely to direct his administration to do so. It would trigger a drawn-out legal battle with two companies that insist they are complying with state and federal law.

Instead, his administration has focused on extracting promises from the two chemical manufacturers to limit the pollution on their own.

Sterigenics signed a consent order this month in which the company agreed to extensive improvements to its pollution control systems. BD Bard has balked at following suit, though the company said it would spend $8 million on improvements.

That announcement came shortly after a Tuesday meeting with Kemp and his aides that was described by several people with knowledge of the closed-door discussions as testy and uncomfortable.

It triggered a sharp response from the governor, who soon released a statement applauding Sterigenics' "proactive" decision to sign a consent order to curb pollution.  "Now BD Bard should do the same," he added, pointedly.

Kemp’s critics were not appeased. That consent order may also make it harder for Georgia to take future legal action against Sterigenics, said Jordan, while rewarding the firm for taking steps it could be required to do anyways by regulators.

In an interview Tuesday, the Democrat said the best way to force more concessions is to amplify public pressure by continuing to call for state officials to close the plants.

“Our approach has helped moved the ball. If they’re putting together the technology that’s reducing toxic emissions, then the factory shouldn’t operate until it’s in place,” said Jordan. “The people in Georgia are entitled to as much protection as the people in Illinois.”