Cobb activists celebrate Sterigenics’ closing in Willowbrook, Illinois

Sterigenics President Philip Macnabb talks to a packed house during a community meeting in Cobb County to address concerns over toxic emissions from the plant. The company announced Monday that it is closing a similar plant in Willowbrook, Illinois, following a year of sustained opposition from residents and officials in that state. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Sterigenics President Philip Macnabb talks to a packed house during a community meeting in Cobb County to address concerns over toxic emissions from the plant. The company announced Monday that it is closing a similar plant in Willowbrook, Illinois, following a year of sustained opposition from residents and officials in that state. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Sterigenics, the company that owns a controversial medical sterilization facility in Cobb County, announced Monday it will close a similar plant in Willowbrook, Illinois, following a year of sustained opposition from residents and officials in that state.

The company has come under scrutiny for its permitted use of ethylene oxide after the federal government reclassified the chemical as a definite carcinogen in 2016. The Willowbrook facility was shuttered by the state of Illinois in February after air monitoring showed high levels of ethylene oxide in the area.

In a prepared statement Monday, Sterigenics said it was unable to renew its lease “in the present environment” despite reaching an agreement with Illinois to reopen.

“Given the unstable legislative and regulatory landscape in Illinois, Sterigenics will not pursue reopening,” the statement said.

It’s unclear what the Illinois closure means for the Sterigenics plant near Smyrna. A company spokesman declined to comment directly, but pointed to the company’s statement that says it will continue voluntarily “implementing new controls at our other sterilization facilities.”

Sterigenics operates 9 other facilities that use ethylene oxide around the country, and has voluntarily agreed to add emission control equipment to the facility in Cobb County.

The Cobb plant suspended operations in August in order to install the new equipment. Around the same time, however, county officials deemed the facility a high hazard industrial site, triggering additional hurdles to its reopening.

Janet Rau, president of Stop Sterigenics Georgia, said the closure of the Willowbrook facility could put more pressure on Sterigenics to keep the Cobb plant open to compensate for the lost capacity. But, she said, it also shows how grassroots organizers can work with government officials to achieve results.

“I think locally it’s really going to energize our efforts because it shifts how people will see this,” she said. “We’re no longer just this group of people fighting against this big corporation. We’re part of a movement, nationally, to hold these companies accountable and part of this movement has now met with the exact success they were looking for.”

Willowbrook Mayor Frank Trilla called the company’s decision “wise,” and said the plant’s closure took combined effort between residents and government officials at the state and local levels.

“It was a community effort, no doubt about it,” Trilla said. “I would see this as a victory of David and Goliath proportions.”

His message to community activists in Georgia?

“Dig in and keep fighting.”