August 19, 2019 Marietta: Rick Gross (left) and his neighbor John Keller, who live near Sterigenics on Log Cabin Dr. SE, look over a NATA map of estimated total cancer risk around the Sterigenics site while Cobb officials and environmental regulators hold a town hall and community forum in the wake of reports that Cobb and Fulton have high levels of carcinogenic gas on Monday, August 19, 2019, in Marietta. A user and emitter of the gas, Sterigenics, which sterilizes medical equipment, operates in the area. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

The Jolt: Governor won’t seek to close plants that use ethylene oxide

Gov. Brian Kemp said Monday that his administration would not seek to close plants in Covington and Smyrna where cancer-causing gas emissions have sparked an uproar from worried residents.

“I wouldn’t want to focus on closing the plant right now,” the governor said. “They’re in compliance, whether people like it or not, they’re in compliance with federal and state regulations.”

Though state law gives authorities leeway to shut down the plants, Kemp was seen as unlikely to do so, since it would trigger a legal battle with two companies. Hospitals worried about a shortage of sterilized, packaged medical devices, which are treated in the two plants with ethylene oxide, have also expressed opposition to a complete shutdown.

Some residents and elected officials have called for the closure of Sterigenics in Smyrna and BD Bard in Covington. Public eruptions followed a July report on an undisclosed federal finding of increased, long-term risk of cancer.

Kemp met with executives from the two plants last week. Sterigenics has entered into a legal agreement with state regulators, promising additional upgrades to reduce emissions. The governor has demanded that BD Bard follow suit. 

“I was satisfied in some ways how the meeting went, but didn’t think it went far enough with some, so we’re continuing to push on that,” Kemp said of the meeting on Monday. “We’re going to continue to push to make sure the companies are doing what they need to do, and that they’re also relaying that to citizens and that we have a transparent process in the future.”

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To Governor Kemp’s point about transparency: Residents are raising fresh questions over the safety record of sterilization facility in Cobb County following revelations of an explosion that injured a worker there, and an unreported leak of toxic gas, our AJC colleague Meris Lutz reports.

The unrelated incidents both occurred in 2018 at the Sterigenics plant near Smyrna, well before the plant’s ethylene oxide emissions drew public attention for the chemical’s link to cancer. The facility uses the carcinogenic gas to sterilize medical equipment. This is the eyebrow-raiser passage in Lutz’ piece, on at least two levels:

But the [explosion] was far more catastrophic than suggested by the EPD, according to a report from the Cobb County Fire Department and a former Sterigenics employee...

“His clothes were burnt off,” said the former employee of his injured colleague. The former employee asked that his name be withheld because he signed confidentiality documents.

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Meanwhile, state Sen. Jen Jordan of Atlanta -- one of several Democrats who have called on state officials to shutter the plant until testing proves it has reduced emissions -- is also demanding an investigation of state environmental regulators.

Jordan told WABE that the state Environmental Protection Division failed to act when it found high levels of the chemical.

“Now we’re at a point where all the sudden EPD has agreed to do this air monitoring, but it’s taken so many people pushing along the way, that I think there really needs to be an investigation into exactly what went wrong here,” she told host Jim Burress

Jordan also said one of the businesses that shares the leased property with Sterigenics has already left the premises.

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Stuff we’ve already posted this morning:

-- State Rep. Calvin Smyre of Columbus, the longest-serving member of the Legislature who also travels in national Democratic circles, has formally endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden in the presidential contest, ahead of Dr. Jill Biden’s appearance at an Atlanta fundraiser today.

-- Sarah Riggs Amico, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 2018, announced her candidacy for the U.S. Senate this morning. She’s out with a two-minute video that leads on her Christian faith -- perhaps a message aimed at women voters who once considered themselves Republican. As Amico once was.

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Another sign of change in metro Atlanta counties that were once solidly red: The city council of Smyrna is considering an anti-discrimination ordinance, based on “actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability, marital status, familial status, or veteran/military status.”

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A glimpse at Republican Marcy Westmoreland Sakrison’s campaign filings show who the GOP powers-that-be want to prevail in the four-way contest to replace state Rep. Matt Stover, R-Newnan.

Sakrison raised about $46,000 for the Sept. 3 contest for the Coweta County-based seat -- more than any of her rivals. The daughter of former Georgia congressman Lynn Westmoreland, Sakrison picked up donations from both House Speaker David Ralston and Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones.

There is a rift in GOP ranks in House District 71, with many hardline Republicans backing Phillip Singleton. When the Coweta County GOP held a debate of candidates this month, Sakrison declined to show up -- resulting in a second place straw poll finish by Democrat Jill Prouty. (The special election is nonpartisan.) 

Singleton has also nabbed the endorsement of WSB pundit Erick Erickson, who on Monday wrote on Facebook that he was backing the “strong conservative who will vote for limited government” - and for Ralston’s ouster. Wrote Erickson:

“Speaker Ralston is pouring money into the seat to make sure Singleton does not win because Singleton has said he would push for the Speaker’s resignation. Singleton is a strong conservative who will vote for limited government. Support him and we can have a runoff between two Republicans, one of whom backs the Speaker and one who wants to do the right thing.”

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With U.S. agriculture under increasing pressure due to the trade war with China, the New York Times has a look at Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s efforts to keep farmers in President Donald Trump’s camp. The NYT piece includes these paragraphs:

Mr. Perdue is a somewhat unlikely lieutenant in Mr. Trump’s trade war. As Georgia’s governor, he worked to strengthen ties between the state and China, welcoming Chinese companies and making economic development trips to Shanghai and Beijing. At one point he pushed for Atlanta to become a hub for the Free Trade Area of the Americas, a proposed 34-country trade pact that never came to fruition...

But in the Trump administration, Mr. Perdue has been a staunch backer of the president’s policies, publicly defending tariffs, working to shrink the federal government and expressing doubts about the science behind climate change.

“He’s the Trump whisperer,” said Neill Herring, an environmental activist in Georgia who once worked with Mr. Perdue in the State Legislature. “He can tell Trump exactly what he wants to hear.”

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The NYT piece above leads on the mixed reviews that an attempt at levity by former Governor Perdue drew during a meeting with farmers in Wisconsin last month: “What do you call two farmers in a basement? A whine cellar.”

The Associated Press posits one possible reaction for some of the booes Perdue received: 

The American Farm Bureau Federation said that from July 2018 through June 2019, Wisconsin farmers filed 45 bankruptcies under Chapter 12, a section of the U.S. bankruptcy code that provides financially troubled family farmers with a streamlined path to repay all or part of their debts. Data show the total was five fewer than the previous 12-month period but still No. 1 in the nation.

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One more thing from Gov. Brian Kemp: On Monday, he was keen to table the idea of legalizing casino gambling. But Kemp didn’t show his cards on whether he would sports betting -- a new front that’s about to debut in legislative venues at the state Capitol.

Asked his take on legalizing gambling after a Monday event, the Republican governor repeated his opposition to casinos but again signaled he wouldn’t actively oppose a constitutional amendment that would let voters decide. Said Kemp:

“I haven’t been a big fan of casinos and that’s well documented. I’m not exactly sure what the House is looking at, but we’ll see what they come up with and see where that goes. Some of these things they’ve been talking about doing over the last year or two have been constitutional amendments, and if that were to pass the Legislature obviously the governor doesn’t have a signature on that.” 

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