Sterigenics consent order allows operations in Cobb indefinitely

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

A controversial medical sterilizer based in Cobb will be allowed to resume normal operations indefinitely while a lawsuit it filed against the county is pending, according to a consent order signed Wednesday.

The agreement nullifies the two-week expiration date on an April 1 temporary restraining order granted to Sterigenics by a federal judge against county officials, who had sought to limit what the facility could sterilize pending the issuance of new permits.

In a statement, the company lauded the agreement.

“We will continue our safe sterilization operations at the facility in the interest of public health,” the statement read. “We are confident the legal proceedings will ultimately confirm our legal rights to continue those operations beyond the litigation for future public health needs.”

The plant suspended operations last year to install new pollution controls following public outcry over its ethylene oxide emissions, which were highlighted in a federal report on potential increased cancer risks in surrounding areas.

Later, the county kept the facility closed, allegedly for being out of compliance with fire code. Recently, Cobb has come under federal pressure to reopen the plant in order to help sterilize medical equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

County Chairman Mike Boyce signed an emergency declaration allowing the company to resume some sterilization activity, but stopped short of returning it to full operation. Shortly thereafter, Sterigenics filed a lawsuit against Cobb alleging the county lacked the authority to keep it shut.

County Spokesman Ross Cavitt wrote in an email Wednesday that Cobb has “mutually agreed with Sterigenics to maintain the status quo under the existing Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) while the ongoing pandemic health crisis and emergency orders are in place.”

“A hearing on the TRO will occur at some point in the future regarding the operating status of the facility and its necessary occupancy and hazardous classifications,” he wrote. “The County stands behind the work exhibited by our Fire Marshal and Chief Building Official in their continued efforts to protect the County’s public from potential hazards and harms regardless of origin.”

Meanwhile, the local grassroots group Stop Sterigenics issued a statement calling on the Food and Drug Administration to ban the use of ethylene oxide for the re-sterilization of personal protective equipment. It accused Sterigenics of using ethylene oxide to sterilize medical devices and equipment that do not require it.

“Are Sterigenics, Medline and other members of the Ethylene Oxide Sterilization Association taking advantage of this crisis to turn a profit, now placing the lives of our first responders and medical personnel at risk of multiple harm?” the statement read.

In response, a spokesperson for Sterigenics said the company is not using the chemical to reprocess used protective equipment.

“Further, the notion that the company’s customers would incur the time and expense to sterilize products that do not require sterilization is misinformed at best,” he added.