August 27, 2019 Smyrna - Agents with Georgia Department of Natural Resources' Environmental Protection Division truck leave after a 3-hours-long inspection inside Sterigenics in Smyrna on Wednesday, August 27, 2019. State regulators deployed an emergency response team to the Sterigenics plant in Cobb County Tuesday to investigate a toxic gas leak that forced employees to evacuate the facility last month. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The Jolt: Governor kept in the dark about Sterigenics leak

State regulators deployed an emergency response team to the Sterigenics plant in Cobb County on Tuesday to investigate a toxic gas leak that forced employees to evacuate the facility last month, our AJC colleague Meris Lutz reports:

The AJC obtained a company email to employees indicating the leak occurred in the early morning of July 31. The night before, hundreds of residents attended a community meeting at a Smyrna middle school to discuss toxic ethylene oxide emissions from the plant. The facility uses the carcinogenic gas to sterilize medical equipment.

The state Environmental Protection Division was not informed, according to the company, because the leak was “well below the EPD’s requirements for reporting.”

That may be so. But the timing also means that Sterigenics executives didn’t mention the evacuation during last week’s meeting with Gov. Brian Kemp, who afterwards praised the company for its “willingness to voluntarily agree to a significant reduction in ethylene oxide emissions.” 

In many circles, keeping a governor in the dark -- and in such a personal manner -- might be considered poor crisis management. “We appreciate the explanation but previous failure to report warrants more investigation,” said one government official. 

Adding to the frustration: The revelation came just a day after Governor Kemp publicly ruled out using executive powers to temporarily shut down the factory.

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Shortly after news of the emergency investigation into the Sterigenics plant broke, the leader of House Democrats in the state Capitol joined the calls for Gov. Brian Kemp to shut down the plant until it can prove it has reduced cancer-causing pollution.

“Time for suspension of operations at Sterigenics until the safety of Georgians can be assured,” wrote Bob Trammell on Twitter. “Hiding facts from the public and regulators about explosions and gas leaks is wildly unacceptable. Risk of inaction is too great.”

Before sending out that message, the Luthersville lawyer had been on Peachpod, the Georgia political podcast put together by Kyle Hayes.

Hayes asked whether the Legislature should hold hearings on why the state Environmental Protection Division didn’t notify Georgians of the dangers posed by the use of ethylene oxide at Sterigenics and other facilities that use the gas to sterilize medical devices. Said Trammell:

“Absolutely. I think that’s one of the functions that the Legislature serves and why people elect their legislators when they send us to Atlanta to make sure we are asking those types of questions. There has clearly been a gap in what should be done and what was actually done.”

Trammell made one other bit of news on the podcast, but on the topic of Georgia’s new anti-abortion “hearbeat” law. The minority leader said he and his Democratic party would push for the repeal of the legislation:

“I fully anticipate the courts are going to enjoin House Bill 481, but we’ve got to get this law off the books. So you can expect us to engage in an effort to repeal the law that was enacted this year.

Clearly, the push would be tied to the Democratic effort to wrest control of the House from Republicans in November 2020.

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Our AJC colleague Mark Niesse has the most intriguing opening paragraphs you’re likely to see in Georgia journalism today:

To find a clue about what might have gone wrong with Georgia’s election last fall, look no further than voting machine No. 3 at the Winterville Train Depot outside Athens.

On machine No. 3, Republicans won every race. On each of the other six machines in that precinct, Democrats won every race.

The odds of an anomaly that large are less than 1 in 1 million, according to a statistician’s analysis in court documents. The strange results would disappear if votes for Democratic and Republican candidates were flipped on machine No. 3.

It just so happens that this occurred in Republican Brian Kemp’s home precinct, where he initially had a problem voting because his yellow voter access card didn’t work. At the time, Kemp was secretary of state — Georgia’s top election official — and running for governor in a tight contest with Democrat Stacey Abrams.

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On a similar note, the Mississippi Clarion-Ledgeron Tuesday reported three confirmed cases of voting machines changing voter selections in the state’s GOP primary runoff. In one case, the glitch was caught on video.

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The gloves came off in the Democratic race for U.S. Senate at approximately 1:45 p.m. Tuesday, a few hours after Sarah Riggs Amico made it a three-way race.

Up until then, the contest between former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson and Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry was a mostly polite one, at least publicly. 

That changed when Amico, last year’s runner-up for lieutenant governor, announced her candidacy to the AJC. Terry took aim not at her company’s recent bankruptcy, but her past support of GOP candidates. Amico has often said she’s a “recovering Republican” who decided to side with Democrats after the 2012 presidential election.

“I was proud to support Barack Obama when he ran for re-election, it's unfortunate that not all of my opponents feel the same way,” Terry wrote above a screenshot of Amico’s $973 in contributions to Republican Mitt Romney in 2012.

Tomlinson’s campaign manager, Kendra Cotton, echoed with a GIF tweet: “Those are the facts.” 

Pressed for more comment, Terry told us this: “It’s a slap in the face to everyone, including me, who worked our asses off to elect and re-elect our first black president. Wasn’t it Mitch McConnell’s mission to make Barack Obama a one term president?”

But Terry didn’t stop there. After Amico’s first campaign event came at a picket line supporting striking AT&T workers, he tweeted a string of photos of him supporting organized labor.

“Remember that most politicians are full of sh*t. Don't just believe what they say, look at what they've done, and then you will know where they stand,” he said on social media

Republicans piled on, too. Beyond the expected attacks mocking the bankruptcy of Amico’s car-hauling firm, U.S. Sen. David Perdue’s allies also pointed out that the Teamsters union accused her firm of unfair labor practices in February.

And here’s what Sarah Riggs Amico had to say about her two Democratic rivals:

“Look, there’s no question they have been in office. But they’ve also never run statewide. They’ve never had to weather a private company and protect thousands of jobs through turbulent economic times. As far as I know, neither one of them has managed a business that’s dealing with the fallout of the trade wars or the pension crisis.

“I’m in a unique position not only to be able to speak to economic opportunity and how we build something that works for everybody, but to talk specifically about the failures of the GOP-led Senate on issues like trade and pension reform.”

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We have a theological argument brewing over whether the Bible endorses socialism, a topic raised by the Rev. William Barber during last week’s summer meeting of the Democratic National Committee.“

Jesus offered free health care to everyone, and he never charged a leper a co-pay,” Barber said.

Republicans have latched onto the comment. Specifically, Faith and Freedom Coalition founder Ralph Reed, who argued on Fox News that the Bible is not “a religious communist manifesto.”

But Reed made it pretty clear that Jesus would have opposed Medicaid expansion and supported work requirements for food stamp eligibility. From the Christian Post:

“I don’t think that this is going to sell in the heartland because the good news is Christians in America know their Bible and they know that the Bible teaches that ‘he who does not work shall not eat,’ it talks about the importance of work, and it talks about the importance of being productive,” said Reed.

“Yes, we’re called to care for the poor, and the needy, and the infirmed, and the alien, and the stranger, but that call is to the faithful. It calls to those closest to the need to meet that need. Not big government, not bureaucrats in Washington.”

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The New York Times has a piece this morning that looks at the fact that the National Rifle Association’s long-held bipartisan footing in Congress has become a thing of the past:

In 2008, voters elected 67 A-rated Democrats to Congress, where they accounted for about a quarter of the party’s caucus. Another 13 Democrats were elected with B ratings, meaning the N.R.A. considered them “generally pro-gun” despite some past disagreements.

Now, only three congressional Democrats — Representatives Sanford Bishop of Georgia, Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Henry Cuellar of Texas — have A grades. Just two more, Representatives Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey and Kurt Schrader of Oregon, have B’s. There is not a single A- or B-rated Democrat left in the Senate.

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Georgia’s anti-abortion “heartbeat” law has provoked plenty of reaction. But this might be the first song it has inspired. Atlanta-based singer-songwriter Anita Aysola’s new single “Heartbeat” is an anthem devoted to women opposing the new restrictions. Check it out here

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