Aerial view shows The Sterigenics plant in Smyrna on Thursday. Cobb County Commission Chairman Mike Boyce signed an emergency authorization Wednesday, allowing Sterigenics to reopen on a limited basis. The plant had been closed since August pending the re-issuance of local and state permits. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Sterigenics: Cobb’s order allowing it to reopen fails to protect public

Hours after Cobb County officials announced that they would allow Sterigenics to reopen, the controversial medical device sterilizer issued a statement saying the county’s action falls “woefully short of the measures needed to protect public health” as the novel coronavirus continues to spread across Georgia and beyond.

Sterigenics has been closed since August, first to install new pollution controls and later due to disputes over county fire safety permits. At the time of its closure, the company was roiled by public controversy over the facility’s use of a carcinogenic gas, ethylene oxide, in its sterilization process.

Cobb Commission Chairman Mike Boyce signed an emergency order Wednesday, after lobbying by federal health officials and Gov. Brian Kemp. The order allows Sterigenics to resume operations at its facility near Smyrna on a limited basis, and restricts the amount of ethylene oxide permitted on site.

It expires at the end of the county’s Declaration of Emergency related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Sterigenics lengthy statement says it will “take immediate steps” to resume sterilization of personal protective medical equipment, but the county’s order “excludes sterilization of vital medical products and devices, including ventilator tubing, IV sets, catheters and many other medical products that are essential to patient care.”

There has been a nationwide shortage of protective equipment for medical professionals on the front line of the fight against the virus.

Boyce said Thursday that the county’s order allowing Sterigenics to reopen “reflects our understanding of the narrow scope of what the FDA is requesting — that we allow Sterigenics to reopen with the context of responding to this national emergency.”

“And we will be carefully monitoring Sterigenics to ensure compliance with our order,” Boyce said.

Sterigenics has come under scrutiny for its permitted use of ethylene oxide, which has been used as a sterilizer for decades. But in 2016, the federal government reclassified the chemical as a definite carcinogen and determined that it is toxic at much lower levels than previously thorught. 

A revised risk assessment published last summer concluded areas surrounding facilities that use ethylene oxide may have increased risk of cancer, if exposure occurs over a lifetime. 

Georgia Rep. Teri Anulewicz (D-Smyrna) said she was disappointed in what she called the “abrupt” reopening: “One question I have for Chairman Boyce is whether he consulted with any of the other jurisdictions that are impacted by his decision.” 

Vinings resident Chad Harlan wrote a letter to county and state leaders opposing the plant’s reopening, and saying he has lived in the area for years and lost family members to cancer. Harlan said he and many of his neighbors would be challenging their property tax bills if the plant reopens. 

“The re-opening of this plant immediately reduces the value of my home,” Harlan said. “We are already in a declining home market due to the virus; this will make matters worse in our community. Imagine the impact to tax revenues in an already very tough year for county and state revenue. 

“This is an important safety, health, and financial decision the county and state are making.” 

The company has been negotiating with county officials and state regulators to reopen on a permanent basis. Sterigenics’ statement says they have complied with all of the county’s permit requirements. 

“Sterigenics has invested significant resources to install voluntary upgrades to our emission control systems,” the statement says. “We have fully complied with the fire and safety review required by Cobb County, which is now in the County’s hands. That review required by the County further demonstrates that our facility is in compliance and safe. 

“The only thing that remains is for the County to confirm that the facility may be re-opened for full operation to meet the urgent needs facing health care workers and patients.” 

Boyce said it will take cooperation from all three parties for the plant to reopen permanently. 

“The only way we will issue the permit is when we believe they will meet the state standards” for ethylene oxide emissions, Boyce said.

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