Judge issues mixed ruling in Sterigenics lawsuit against Cobb

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

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)

A controversial medical sterilizer may continue operating near Smyrna following a judge’s ruling that sided with some of the company’s claims but still left the door open to stricter regulation.

Sterigenics, the country’s largest medical sterilization firm, has been at the center of a heated public debate over whether its business practices put local communities at increased risk of cancer. The company uses ethylene oxide, a cancer-causing gas, to sterilize medical equipment and other goods.

In 2020, Sterigenics filed a lawsuit against Cobb County officials who sought to require its local facility to obtain a new occupancy permit based on a higher standard for heavy industry.

The Sterigenics’ complaint argued that county officials were looking for an excuse to shut down the plant to appease public outrage following media coverage of a federal report on increased cancer risk in surrounding neighborhoods. The facility has been operating under a temporary court order as the case moved forward.

This week, U.S District Judge Sarah E. Geraghty ruled that Cobb’s decision to require the new permit on the grounds Sterigenics had undertaken “substantial” renovations to install new pollution controls was not valid based on the limited scope of the work.

Ultimately, however, Geraghty allowed that the county could assert a requirement for a new permit under other conditions. In this hypothetical scenario, any potential damage to Sterigenics is unknown, she said.

“Discussions over what facility changes would be required for the issuance of a new [certificate of occupancy] were cut off by the start of this litigation, with the question left unanswered,” she wrote. “[D]espite what Sterigenics suggests was [county officials’] aim to shut down the facility permanently, the Court is not free to assume that this is what would ultimately occur.”

Geraghty also found no indication that the county or its officials “acted other than in good faith and in keeping with their professional responsibilities,” but added that this was irrelevant to her decision.

Cobb County Commission Chair Lisa Cupid said in a statement that the county attorney was still evaluating the comprehensive ruling.

“I recognize the order will allow the facility to continue operating,” Cupid said. “The order makes it clear that the county will still have the opportunity to monitor the facility and ensure it operates in the interest of public safety.”

Sterigenics did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Jen Jordan, an attorney and former state senator who used to represent and live in the affected area, said her reading of the decision was that it was a very narrow ruling intended to get the case out of federal court.

“The most important thing is to keep the people of Cobb County safe,” Jordan said. “The county shouldn’t back down, they just need to make sure that what they do is on strong legal grounds and I think that there are strong legal grounds out there.”

Separately, Sterigenics faces legal action from Georgia residents who accuse the company of exposing them to dangerous levels of ethylene oxide. Earlier this year, the company agreed to pay more than $400 million to settle lawsuits brought by Illinois residents living near its Willowbrook facility. The company has denied wrongdoing and said its decision to settle was a financial one.

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