Smyrna lawmaker to propose new regulations for sterilizing gas

Covington resident Denise Williams holds her 1-year-old godson Davion Petty while attending the Town Hall presentation on ethylene oxide gas from the nearby Becton Dickinson plant. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Covington resident Denise Williams holds her 1-year-old godson Davion Petty while attending the Town Hall presentation on ethylene oxide gas from the nearby Becton Dickinson plant. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

State Rep. Erick Allen (D-Smyrna) announced Friday that he intends to introduce legislation next year that would tighten state oversight of ethylene oxide, a toxic gas used by several industrial facilities across the state.

Ethylene oxide has been the focus of community concern since a July report by WebMD and Georgia Health News highlighted potential increased cancer risks in the Smyrna and Covington areas, where medical sterilizing companies are legally permitted to use and emit the carcinogenic chemical.

Other facilities that use ethylene oxide are located in south Fulton County, Madison, Augusta, Winder, Tucker and Cartersville.

“The people of Georgia deserve better and demand better of their government to protect our air, water and soil,” Allen said in a statement. “The current laws and rules do not protect the health of our children and our families from the cancer risks caused by the release of ethylene oxide.”

Allen said the legislation would reduce the amount of ethylene oxide a facility could release and limit its proximity to homes, schools and daycare centers. Currently, state and federal law only requires those facilities to control 99 percent of emissions, but does not set hard limits on how much can be emitted.

The state Environmental Protection Division — until recent air monitoring began — relied solely on the companies to report their emissions. Georgia has a history of being industry-friendly when it comes to environmental regulation. But under pressure from constituents, the state has recently taken a harder line.

Allen’s bill would require facilities to report any unpermitted release of ethylene oxide, regardless of amount. State law currently only requires reporting for a release greater than 10 pounds over a 24-hour period or if the amount of release isn’t immediately known.

In addition, Allen said his bill would require testing of ethylene oxide at the exhaust point of all permitted facilities, and continuous monitoring of emissions by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

Allen’s announcement came as Becton Dickenson in Covington resumed operations after reaching an agreement with the state to stop sterilizing for a week. The consent order followed high concentrations of ethylene oxide in air tests commissioned by the city. The company did not immediately provide comment on the proposed legislation.

Meanwhile, Sterigenics in Cobb remains closed pending the issuance of local and state permits. The company declined to comment on the proposed bill.

Where are we now? Becton Dickenson in Covington has resumed operations after agreeing to temporarily shut down following high ethylene oxide concentrations in air tests. The company is now subject to more stringent reporting requirements, per a consent order with the state. Sterigenics in Cobb County remains closed pending the issuance of new local and state permits. Some of those could be difficult to obtain: the county is requiring the plant to meet a stricter fire code than before, while the state has asked for proof the plant's new emission control system works as intended before issuing a permit.

What's next? The state continues conducting air tests for ethylene oxide across Georgia. Resident activists are demanding both Sterigenics and BD plants close permanently. Lawmakers, under pressure from constituents, are expected to debate additional regulation in the upcoming legislation session.