Local residents look over maps of the estimated total cancer risk and modeled concentrations of ethylene oxide at the Becton Dickinson plant during the EPA/EPD presentation at the Old Newton County Courthouse on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019, in Covington. CURTIS COMPTON/CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Covington, Madison sterilization plants also suffered toxic gas leaks

Medical sterilization plants in Covington and Madison suffered inadvertent leaks of ethylene oxide years before concerns about emissions of the toxic gas raised alarms by federal regulators, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.

The leaks at plants now owned by Becton Dickinson in Covington in 2016 and a separate facility in Madison in 2006 were reported to state regulators at the time they occurred. The state Environmental Protection Division took no punitive action in either instance, a state EPD spokesman said, because the facilities took “appropriate action” to correct the mishaps.

The operations of sterilizers that use ethylene oxide have come under greater scrutiny since an U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report released last year came to light that warned of the risk for potential health concerns from long-term exposure to the gas. That report, known as the 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment, warned of the potential for higher cancer risk in census tracts near the BD plant in Newton County and a Sterigenics sterilization facility in Cobb County.

In a statement, BD said it “is proud of the safety and compliance records for our sterilization facilities in Covington and Madison.” The company noted that the two reported leaks are the only ones that either facility has suffered since 2000.

“There were no injuries as a result of either event,” the statement said. “If an event occurs, we immediately take corrective actions and report it to the proper regulatory authorities.”

Local TV station 11Alive first reported the leaks.

According to records obtained by the AJC, the Covington plant suffered a leak of up to 85 pounds of ethylene oxide in January 2016. The leak was caused by the failure of a gasket. The company replaced the faulty gasket and other connections within the system were also inspected, a state report said.

In a statement, BD said safety equipment detected the leak when it happened, “and the sterilization process was stopped immediately.”

“There were no evacuations needed because no employees were present in the manifold room at the time of the release,” the statement said.

In the 2006 incident in Madison, a leak occurred during equipment testing before the then-new plant opened for operations. The test was conducted on Sept. 29 of that year, but the release of ethylene oxide was not discovered until 11 days later. A spokeswoman for the company said the leak lasted six minutes.

According to a 2006 letter to state regulators from C.R. Bard, the company that owned the plant at the time, the Madison leak was blamed on “operator error” while testing sterilization equipment.

At the time, the company said “no more than 30 pounds” of the gas was released. A statement from BD last week said the amount of the release was at most 26 pounds. BD said changes to the facility’s testing protocol “permanently corrected” the matter.

BD said its emissions are well below its permitted amount.

Recently, BD also has pledged to spend $8 million to improve emissions controls in Covington and Madison.

Concerned local residents fill the courtroom in the Old Newton County Courthouse during the EPA/EPD presentation on ethylene oxide gas from the nearby Becton Dickinson plant on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019, in Covington. CURTIS COMPTON/CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In an email, EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers said the agency decided against taking enforcement action against C.R. Bard, BD’s predecessor company, for either of the two leaks. Under state law, EPD engages in “conference, conciliation, or persuasion” with companies it regulates to return facilities to compliance, Chambers said.

“In these matters, EPD determined that the facilities had taken appropriate action and had returned to compliance,” he said. “If EPD had not been satisfied with the company’s response, the agency would have taken additional enforcement actions, to include monetary penalties or other corrective action.”

In recent weeks, Sterigenics has come under scrutiny for safety concerns at its plant.

An April 2018 leak resulted in a warning letter from the state for failing to promptly notify regulators. State regulators also visited the plant last month after the AJC reported about a leak in July and an explosion a year earlier that injured a worker.

In a statement, Sterigenics previously told the AJC the company “is focused on the safety of its employees and its communities as it sterilizes vital medical products and devices.”

Sterigenics has said both leaks were below reporting thresholds and that the company is in compliance with state and federal emissions standards. Sterigenics recently entered a consent order with the state EPD to enhance its emissions controls.

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