Cobb residents dig in for fight over Sterigenics plant emissions

Residents and government officials demanded independent air quality testing around a medical sterilization facility in Cobb during a heated community meeting held Tuesday to address concerns over carcinogenic emissions at the plant.

“Self reporting is no longer an option,” State Rep. Erick Allen, D-Smyrna, said to applause from the audience of several hundred.

Allen was referring to emissions data submitted by Sterigenics, the company that owns the facility near Smyrna, that led the federal Environmental Protection Agency to project an elevated risk of cancer in surrounding neighborhoods.

That EPA report was released last August, but the agency did not issue a press release and neither federal nor state environmental regulators informed residents in the affected areas. The issue came to light in an article published by WebMD and Georgia Health News earlier this month.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Sterigenics President Phil Macnabb said the chemical in question, ethylene oxide, is vital to the sterilization of many life-saving medical devices, such as syringes. He explained how the products are loaded into a room which is then vacuum-sealed and pumped with ethylene oxide to disinfect them. Afterwards, the gas is supposed to be captured and channeled through an emission control system.

Macnabb repeatedly emphasized that the company’s most recent emissions data showed the plant emitted a little over 200 pounds of ethylene oxide over the course of a year.

What Macnabb did not say, until pressed by an audience member, was that the company’s self-reported 2016 emissions dropped dramatically, from 3,574 pounds in 2015 to 226 pounds. That was the same year federal regulators definitively linked ethylene oxide to cancer in humans.

Speaking to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after the meeting, Macnabb said the company has chosen to stop reporting emissions to federal regulators since then.

“Our emissions are at a level that do not require us to report,” he said. “There have been some lawsuits out there that have been problematic for us.”

Federal regulations, however, are not based on emissions. According to Section 313 of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, a facility must report to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory if it “manufactures, processes, or otherwise uses” more than 10,000 pounds.

The company’s Smyrna facility used 418,653 pounds of ethylene oxide in 2017, according to data Sterigenics provided to the state Environmental Protection Division at the agency’s request. The AJC obtained the data through the Georgia Open Records Act.

Those numbers were not submitted by Sterigenics to federal regulators, who offered a different rationalization for why the company stopped reporting emissions.

In prior years, facilities owned by Sterigenics categorized themselves in a way that would not trigger federal reporting requirements, but it nonetheless submitted the data, according to an EPA website set up to answer questions about Sterigenics.

“However, none of the Sterigenics facilities submitted (the) data for 2017,” the website says. “Each year, EPA reviews changes in reporting, and EPA is reviewing this change in reporting.”

Bryce Hensley of Romanucci & Blandin, LLC, which represents five of 11 people who are suing Sterigenics in Illinois, said the government was allowing companies like Sterigenics to “exploit” people.

“The EPA and the administration as a whole are deferring to these companies to let them self-police, self-regulate and self-audit rather than taking a proactive role in helping to protect communities,” Hensley said. “They have been reporting their emissions for years and now, all of a sudden, them stopping is quite frightening.”

Community reactions 

Mariam Slaibi, a law student at Georgia State, said her family lives less than three miles away from the facility. Her father died of cancer last year, and she fears there may be a connection.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions that aren’t going to come out until something is done, like an independent study,” she said.

Agatha Swick, an attorney, said she lives about two miles away from the plant and has young children who go to school even closer.

“It seems like we’re all in a tough situation … and at this point we’re asked to believe them and trust their word that their emissions have dropped,” she said. “I don’t think any of us are willing to do that.”

A burgeoning campaign to “Stop Sterigenics” in Georgia has received support from residents of Willowbrook, Illinois, who are caught in their own battle against the company over a similar facility there.

The Illinois plant has suspended operations after the federal EPA conducted air tests showing extremely high levels of ethylene oxide in the area.

In May, the EPA announced the plant was responsible for long-term cancer risks up to 10 times higher than what the agency considers acceptable, according to the Chicago Tribune. The paper reported that the risks remained high despite improvements the company voluntarily undertook to reduce emissions, and impacted neighborhoods up to 25 miles away.

A separate study by the Illinois Department of Public Health found women and girls living near Sterigenics between 1995 and 2015 suffered higher than expected rates of certain cancers, according to the Tribune.

Lauren Kaeseberg, an attorney and activist from Willowbrook, made the trip to Smyrna to urge Georgians to stick together in what could be a protracted and difficult fight.

“This is a movement,” she told the audience, many of whom rose in a standing ovation. “Stay united and fight this monstrous company because they only care about money.”

On Wednesday, State Senator Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, filed a petition with the Center for Disease Control asking the agency to carry out an evaluation of health risks from emissions at the Sterigenics plant in Cobb. A similar study around the Willowbrook facility found an elevated cancer risk for residents.

The state response 

The report released by the federal EPA last August that first projected elevated cancer risk is called the National Air Toxics Assessment and comes out every three years. It is intended to guide local agencies, who do their own follow-up assessments.

In Georgia, state regulators conducted modeling analyses of the two facilities flagged by the EPA: Sterigenics in Cobb and BD Bard in Newton County.

The EPD says that its subsequent analyses are based on modelling, not air testing, and did not find the cancer risk exceeded the EPA’s threshold of 100 extra deaths per million. However, the facilities were many times above the state’s “acceptable ambient concentration,” a guidance metric the state uses to seek voluntary reforms from industry.

The Georgia EPD has adopted federal regulations on ethylene oxide emissions from medical sterilization facilities that have not been updated since 2006. Those regulations require 99 percent control of emissions and do not dictate concentration levels in the atmosphere.

Other Georgia facilities that emit ethylene oxide are located in Augusta, Madison and Winder.

In a statement, the EPD said it would “continue to investigate the feasibility of conducting air monitoring,” but does not conduct such testing at this time.

“The fastest way to get additional emission reductions at these facilities is through voluntary measures,” the EPD statement said. “That’s why EPD has focused our efforts on securing additional voluntary emission reductions as quickly as possible while we deepen our understanding of the current situation.”

This story was updated at 6:11 p.m. on 7-31-19