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 in July. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Cobb to allow Sterigenics to test new pollution controls

Cobb officials announced Monday that the county will allow a controversial medical sterilization plant that has been shuttered since summer to test new emission controls, a first step toward potentially reopening.

Sterigenics near Smyrna has been closed since August following public outcry over its use of ethylene oxide, a carcinogenic gas it is legally permitted to use to sterilize single-use medical devices. 

Since then, the company says it has installed new equipment to reduce ethylene oxide emissions. But it faces several barriers on a local and state level before it can resume operations. 

Cobb pulled its permits for allegedly being out of compliance with fire code, and the state says it must prove the new equipment works as intended before environmental regulators can issue permission to operate.

Then, last week, the federal Food and Drug Administration asked Georgia to allow Sterigenics to reopen to help combat the novel coronavirus amid a nationwide shortage of some protective gear.

In a statement Monday, Cobb said the new systems test does not involve the use of ethylene oxide, and is not a prelude to the facility’s immediate reopening.

“We recognize that Sterigenics could assist the community in combating COVID 19,” said County Manager Rob Hosack. “However, several critical steps must be completed before Sterigenics can safely reopen and comply with fire safety codes and other county ordinances as has been shared with Sterigenics.” 

Cobb cancelled a similar test that was to be held last month after local officials objected. 

The results of the new systems test will go to state Environmental Protection Division officials who will then analyze the results, the statement said. 

It added that county officials are still waiting for an independent report on Sterigenics’ operation and how the facility can comply with the latest fire codes. 

“We understand the gravity of the current situation,” Hosack was quoted saying. “But we also need to ensure the safety of our residents and with that in mind we need to carefully move forward.”

In its letter to Gov. Brian Kemp, the FDA said the closure of sterilizers like Sterigenics has limited the supply of protection personal equipment (PPE) during the pandemic. 

“FDA is asking for your assistance in helping to increase the supply of PPE to help protect against COVID-19 by working with Sterigenics to allow for the appropriate sterilization of PPE,” it said.

Following Monday’s announcement that the test will go forward, Sterigenics said it is “committed to moving quickly to finalize the remaining requirements in order to safely resume sterilization of vital medical products.”

But some residents and elected officials remain skeptical of the company.

Rep. Erick Allen, D-Smyrna, sent a letter to the FDA seeking clarification, including a specific list of personal protective equipment that requires sterilization by ethylene oxide.

Commissioner Lisa Cupid, who represents South Cobb, wrote on Facebook that she was concerned about potentially allowing the company to operate “despite a finding that its storage of ethylene oxide did not meeting fire or building code.”

“I am of the firm belief that we should not be tackling one health issue by exacerbating another one,” she said.

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