The Kemp administration on Tuesday faced calls from Democratic state lawmakers in Cobb and U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Atlanta, urging the state to shut down the Sterigenics facility in Smyrna until more testing can be done. Republican Congressman Barry Loudermilk, who also represents parts of Cobb, penned a letter to the EPA inquiring about their investigation into the matter.
Kemp’s comments came shortly after meeting with Sterigenics and BD Bard executives to prod them to take new measures to “build trust” with outraged residents.
He described the meetings as productive but said “our work is not done.”
Public pressure has grown on state and federal leaders to curb emissions of ethylene oxide at the plants, sparked last month by a WebMD and Georgia Health News report. The outlets highlighted a 2018 EPA study that warned of the potential for increased long-term risk of cancer around the two facilities from ethylene oxide.
The EPA released the 2018 National Air Toxics Assessment a year ago but didn’t alert the public. The WebMD and Georgia Health News stories triggered ripples of fear in surrounding neighborhoods.
The EPA and state Environmental Protection Division have urged residents not to panic and say modeling with more recent emissions data show a lower risk than last year's assessment, which relied on self-reported data in 2014.
Sterigenics and BD have each said they are complying with state and federal regulations.
BD issued a statement that said it committed in writing Tuesday to spend $8 million to improve its systems and work with the state “to expedite the permitting process with full transparency to install these improvements as quickly as possible to the Covington and Madison facilities.”
‘Are they going to help us’
At a town hall in Covington on Tuesday, Richard Dunn, director of the state Environmental Protection Division, said the agency is working with BD to enact new emissions controls that will lead to a new permit with stricter emissions standards. Officials said discussions on fixes are ongoing but will focus on “fugitive” emissions that currently might escape the plant without going through the plant’s scrubbers.
The BD facility in Covington, about 35 miles east of downtown Atlanta, hasn’t captured the media glare that rival sterilizer Sterigenics has. The Sterigenics plant, in unincorporated Cobb County near Smyrna, sits near SunTrust Park, Vinings and Atlanta’s tony Buckhead neighborhood.
Ora Cody was part of a standing-room-only crowd Tuesday night that filled the historic Newton County Courthouse. Cody, who has lived in Covington for 46 years and once worked in the BD plant when it was known by another name, said she was traveling for weeks and only recently learned about the controversy.
She said she wanted to know: “Are they going to correct this stuff? Are they going to help us?”
On Tuesday, officials with the EPA tried to tamp down Covington residents’ concerns.
The NATA assessment is a screening tool that helps flag where potential environmental issues exist. It isn’t a definitive study showing a public health concern, officials said.
In June, new modeling conducted by the state EPD using updated emissions data self-reported by the companies found lower levels of risk.
Still, ethylene oxide has been found to be more pervasive than initially understood. When communities have conducted air testing for the gas, they’ve tended to find it, even in areas where scientists either didn’t expect to or in higher concentrations than experts predicted.
Jason McCathy, a founder of activist group Say No to EtO, called for independent testing at BD facilities in Covington and another in Madison and any others the emit the gas.
Tuesday’s EPA town hall in Covington followed a similar one in Marietta on Monday.
Metro Atlanta officials agree to pay for testing
Officials in Cobb, Smyrna and Atlanta have agreed to pay for air testing near the plant. Last week, after mounting pressure, the state EPD announced it too would conduct air tests near the Smyrna and Covington plants.
Ethylene oxide is a colorless and combustible gas used to fumigate some agricultural products, sterilize medical equipment and in the manufacturing process of other chemicals such as antifreeze.
The gas is long been known to be harmful, but in 2016 the EPA reclassified ethylene oxide as a carcinogen. The gas has been linked to breast, lymphoid, leukemia and other types of cancers.
The state EPD entered into a consent decree this month with Sterigenics that requires new emissions controls and includes new environmental benchmarks. The company has said it already meets all state and federal air quality standards.
Sterigenics President Phil Macnabb said last week those fixes will cost about $2.5 million and take 12 to 24 weeks to complete.
After Monday’s meeting in Marietta, Democratic state Sen. Jen Jordan of Atlanta and state Rep. Erick Allen of Smyrna called on Kemp to shut down the plant until the business can prove it is not violating emission regulations.
Loudermilk, R-Cassville, asked EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler what the agency is doing to help local elected officials with its investigations, if it supports efforts to conduct independent air tests and how the agency will it ensure companies are reporting accurate emissions information.
Jordan and Allen said Kemp should follow the lead of Illinois which closed a similar Sterigenics facility near Chicago last year.
“The governor has the authority and the power to do that, to ask them to cease operations while this investigation is going on,” Allen told reporters after the Cobb town hall.
In 2016, the EPA determined ethylene oxide is dangerous at much lower levels than previously thought. Based on its new threshold, the EPA in 2018 flagged several census tracts in Georgia for elevated cancer risks from exposure to ethylene oxide. But neither the agency nor the state Environmental Protection Division alerted the public. In July, a report by WebMD and Georgia Health News highlighted the risks in Georgia near plants that use ethylene oxide, which has spurred a public backlash and pledges by local and state agencies to conduct air tests.