Georgia Sen. Jen Jordan (D-Atlanta) filed a legal challenge Friday to a Consent Agreement between the state’s Department of Environmental Protection and Sterigenics, a Cobb County company that emits the carcinogen ethylene oxide during operations that sterilize medical equipment. (Hyosub Shin /
Photo: Bob Andres
Photo: Bob Andres

Sterigenics consent order with Georgia EPD faces legal challenge

A state lawmaker wants a judge to invalidate an agreement between the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and a Cobb County plant that emits a carcinogenic gas. 

The agreement, known as a consent order, requires the company to enhance emission control equipment at the facility.

Georgia Sen. Jen Jordan (D-Atlanta) filed a legal challenge to the agreement on Friday in Fulton Superior Court.

The challenge alleges Georgia EPD violated state law by not publicizing and accepting public comment on the Aug. 7 agreement with Sterigenics, a company that uses the toxic gas ethylene oxide to sterilize single-use medical devices in a facility near Smyrna.

Jordan is joined in the legal challenge by two Cobb residents who live close to the plant.

VIDEO: Previous coverage of this issue

Late Friday, Sterigenics announced an upcoming, temporary closure of its Smyrna plant in order to accommodate construction.

One of the petitioners has been diagnosed with cancer, and the other lost her husband to the disease, according to the filing.

“They have all more likely than not breathed and continue to breathe that known carcinogen … and/or they or family members have already suffered grievous injury as the result of cancer which they believe to have been caused by [ethylene oxide] released by Sterigenics,” the filing says.

“Had the Petitioners’ legal right to provide comment not been interfered with by Georgia EPD’s failure to follow the law, they and others would have vocally contested various aspects of the Consent Order.”

A Sterigenics spokesman declined to comment on the filing. Company officials have appeared at town hall meetings in Cobb County and have consistently maintained that the plant’s operations do not pose risk to the surrounding community.

EPD officials declined to comment on pending litigation, as did the Attorney General’s Office. But the EPD said last month that the consent order allows Sterigenics to install pollution control equipment right away while the state reviews a new permit application.

“EPD takes very seriously its mission to protect the health and safety of all Georgians and believes that this consent order and permit are the best next steps,” the EPD spokesperson said at the time.

The filing calls the state’s agreement with Sterigenics “startling” because it allows the company to continue operations that “pump carcinogenic [ethylene oxide] into the Petitioners’ neighborhoods, shopping centers, playgrounds, sports fields, and schools while EPD and Sterigenics were still trying to figure out how bad the issue really is and how to fix it (something that is still not known).”

Robin Cubbage of Smyrna gives a thumbs-up to a passer-by during a protest against a Cobb County Sterigenics plant at the intersection of Atlanta Road and Plant Atkinson Road. (Alyssa Pointer/
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

A footnote in the filing references a consent order Sterigenics entered with the state of Illinois – an agreement that requires continuous air monitoring around Sterigenics’ plant in Willowbrook and sets “stringent” ethylene oxide emission limits, “none of which are required by or even addressed in the Georgia” consent order, the court filing says.

“If petitioners had been allowed to be heard, what the Georgia EPD and Sterigenics would have agreed to might have looked very different,” the filing says.

Some residents and officials, including Jordan, have been calling for Gov. Brian Kemp to shut down the plant.

The legal challenge comes the same week independent air testing began around the Cobb facility. The monitoring is being carried out by a private environmental consultant at a cost of about $130,000, which will be split between Smyrna, Cobb County and the city of Atlanta.

The EPD has said it plans to do start its own testing in the next few weeks.

Disclosure: one of the residents named in the petition is an employee of the AJC’s parent company, Cox Enterprises.

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