Residents plead with state to not trust Sterigenics to perform air tests

March 26, 2020 Smyrna - Aerial view shows The Sterigenics plant (foreground) in Smyrna on Thursday, March 26, 2020. Cobb County Commission Chairman Mike Boyce signed an emergency authorization Wednesday, allowing Sterigenics to reopen on a “limited contingency basis.” The plant had been closed since August pending the re-issuance of local and state permits. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
March 26, 2020 Smyrna - Aerial view shows The Sterigenics plant (foreground) in Smyrna on Thursday, March 26, 2020. Cobb County Commission Chairman Mike Boyce signed an emergency authorization Wednesday, allowing Sterigenics to reopen on a “limited contingency basis.” The plant had been closed since August pending the re-issuance of local and state permits. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Liken plant handling its own air tests for potentially cancer-causing gas to “fox guarding the henhouse”

At a public hearing, residents who live near Cobb County’s controversial Sterigenics plant repeatedly called on state monitors to reject the plant’s proposal to self-report its emissions of a dangerous gas.

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division on Tuesday and Wednesday held public hearings on Sterigenics’ request for a new air quality permit. Some of the same speakers attended both hearings and many echoed the same concern that Sterigenics could not be trusted and that the EPD was wrong to allow them to self-monitor their emissions from the plant.

Sterigenics has for decades been permitted to use ethylene oxide gas to sterilize medical equipment at its plant off Atlanta Road near Smyrna. But the company has been under heavy public scrutiny since 2019 when its emissions of the gas was flagged in a federal report on elevated cancer risk.

Several people who spoke during the EPD’s two-and-a-half hour virtual hearing Wednesday also said the company should shut down and relocate to a more remote area. They also called on the EPD to conduct its own “fence line” air tests at the plant’s outside perimeter and ambient air testing of ethylene oxide emissions in surrounding neighborhoods.

The draft permit under consideration by the EPD will replace the current, less stringent permit that’s now in effect, according to agency spokesman Kevin Chambers. It would limit the annual ethylene oxide emissions to 84 pounds. Chambers said the current permit does not specify a limit, but said the company in 2017 emitted 206 pounds of ethylene oxide.

The new permit would also reflect Sterigenics’ installation of a continuous emissions monitoring system, which would monitor ethylene oxide emissions that leave the building.

Jenni Shover, a 21-year Smyrna resident who lives about three miles from Sterigenics, said the permit does not mention anything about what the EPD will do to ensure the company is complying with its regulations. The draft permit in its current form would allow Sterigenics to choose its own company that would collect information on ethylene oxide emissions and self-report that data to the state, she said.

“It is time to get serious and stop assuming that this company will magically start doing the right things,” she said. “That’s tantamount to the fox guarding the henhouse.”

Daryl Mosby, who has served as general manager of the plant since 2010, said Sterigenics’ Cobb plant and others around the country sterilize more than 20 billion medical products annually — about half of the products that require sterilization in the U.S. He also said third-party testing under EPD’s supervision show the company’s “emissions controls perform significantly better than total ethylene oxide removal requirements established by the EPD.”

Another resident, Mickie Higgins, said Sterigenics has a history of not being transparent when reporting emissions. She also said any exposure to ethylene oxide is “too much when it comes to our children.”

Kevin Preis, a business owner who lives near the plant, was one of several residents who called on the company to move out of the predominantly residential area. If they are unwilling to do that, Preis said the state should take ownership of Sterigenics’ ethylene oxide reporting process and impose clear penalties for the company when it exceeds emission caps set by the state.

“Nobody’s family should be at risk of cancer-causing emissions,” he said.

Jay Freer, a resident of Vinings, challenged Sterigenics’ proposed plan to use a “higher stack” or taller chimney to reduce the concentration of legal emissions in areas near the plant. Because ethylene oxide is heavier than air, it’s going to come down eventually, Freer said. “It isn’t a solution to poison more people a little less by releasing it higher and letting it float down. … Don’t raise ambient levels for more people.”

The deadline for residents to submit comments in writing to the EPD is 4:30 p.m. Feb. 25. Comments can be emailed to epd.comments@dnr.ga.gov with the subject line: Sterigenics Air Quality Permit.

-A July 2019 story by WebMD and Georgia Health News story highlighted potential increased cancer risks from from ethylene oxide legally released from the Sterigenics plant.

- Following public outcry, the company suspended operations in 2019 to install new pollution controls over its ethylene oxide emissions. Cobb County later kept the facility closed, citing the plant being out of compliance with fire code.

-Georgia Environmental Protection Division held public hearings Tuesday and Wednesday on Sterigenics’ request to obtain a new air quality permit. No timeline has been given for when a decision will be made.

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