March 26, 2020 Smyrna - Aerial view shows The Sterigenics plant (foreground) in Smyrna on Thursday, March 26, 2020. Cobb County Commission Chairman Mike Boyce signed an emergency authorization Wednesday, allowing Sterigenics to reopen on a “limited contingency basis.” The plant had been closed since August pending the re-issuance of local and state permits. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Sterigenics files lawsuit against Cobb County

A medical sterilization company in Cobb has filed a federal lawsuit against the county accusing officials of illegally blocking it from resuming operations.

Last week, Cobb Chairman Mike Boyce signed an emergency order allowing Sterigenics, which has been closed since summer, to reopen temporarily and on a limited basis in order to sterilize personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Sterigenics initially closed in order to install new pollution controls following public outcry over its emissions of ethylene oxide, a cancer-causing gas the company is legally permitted to use to sterilize medical devices such as catheters, intravenous tube sets and personal protective equipment. 

Later, Cobb officially closed the plant, allegedly for being out of compliance with fire code. 

Although the lawsuit filed by Sterigenics mentions COVID-19, it makes a broader argument for full resumption of operations unrelated to the current public health crisis. Specifically, the complaint argues the county has no legal authority to require Sterigenics to obtain a new certificate of occupancy, or to apply new-building “high hazard” standards. 

The county maintains that Sterigenics has never obtained a certificate of occupancy to cover the entire 70,000 square footage of the facility. Sterigenics says it has not changed its occupancy since 1984, when it obtained an “industrial” occupancy permit for 16,320 square feet. A separate certificate was issued to the plant for “storage.” 

The lawsuit does not dispute the facility’s “multiple existing certificates of occupancy.” Rather, it appears to suggest that combining them into a unified document should be an administrative matter and should not preclude Sterigenics from resuming its normal sterilization operations. 

Sterigenics alleges county officials have manufactured “baseless” certificate of occupancy claims in order to close the facility for “political” reasons to appease activists. 

“The county’s actions are illegally prohibiting a facility that outperforms both state and federal regulatory standards from operating, preventing millions of essential and lifesaving medical products from reaching health care providers for use in patient care,” the company said in a statement. 

Sterigenics is asking the court to allow it to resume operations and to declare the relevant county code pertaining to occupancy permits unconstitutional. It is also seeking legal fees from the county. 

The timing of the lawsuit has prompted criticism from some state lawmakers and residents who were already skeptical of a recent federal pressure campaign on the county to reopen Sterigenics. 

A letter from the Food and Drug Administration two weeks ago cited the shortage of protective equipment to combat the coronavirus pandemic

Even after Boyce signed the emergency order, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar sent a strongly-worded letter to the county accusing Cobb of jeopardizing the nation’s response to an “unprecedented national pandemic” by limiting the scope and duration of plant operations. That letter said personal protective equipment only represented 20 percent of what was being sterilized. 

” …(O)ther items like catheters, syringes, IV sets and ventilator components like tubes, filters, and masks are critical to helping patients,” it read. “Conversations on next steps from the Federal Government are occurring at the highest levels, should the situation not change.” 

Boyce, through a spokesman, said Monday he stands by his recently released order on Sterigenics. He declined to comment on Sterigenic’s lawsuit citing pending litigation. 

“This shows how disingenuous the FDA letter was,” State Rep. Erick Allen, D-Smyrna, wrote on Twitter about the lawsuit. “Chairman signed an Executive Order to allow Sterigenics [to] sterilize [personal protective equipment] only (what they asked for). Now they sue to fully resume operations.” 

State Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, took umbrage at the lawsuit’s characterization of the grassroots opposition to the plant which emerged following a federal report that raised the possibility of increased cancer rates in surrounding neighborhoods. 

“By ‘activists’ does Sterigenics mean the people that live near the facility, breathing in EtO, and who are terrified of getting cancer?” she wrote on Twitter. “I call them constituents. Voters. Georgians.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.

Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.

X