Madison reckons with $65,000 for toxic emission mitigation

March 6, 2020 Madison: City Councilman Eric Joyce speaks outside the BD Bard plant on Friday, March 6, 2020, in Madison. A town hall is scheduled for later this month to discuss whether to conduct air testing using money BD has paid as part of an agreement with the state. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

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March 6, 2020 Madison: City Councilman Eric Joyce speaks outside the BD Bard plant on Friday, March 6, 2020, in Madison. A town hall is scheduled for later this month to discuss whether to conduct air testing using money BD has paid as part of an agreement with the state. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

The city of Madison will hold a town hall meeting later this month to discuss a medical sterilization company’s emissions of the carcinogenic gas ethylene oxide.

The Becton Dickinson plant in Madison has attracted significantly less attention than the BD facility in Covington, or a Cobb County facility owned by Sterigenics, both of which sparked public protests last year.

The meeting, scheduled for March 26 at 7 p.m., will feature a presentation from company officials from BD but no independent experts or representatives from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, according to Madison Mayor Fred Perriman.

The city was awarded $65,000 last year as part of a consent order between BD and the state, and at least one council member is pushing to spend the money on air monitoring around the BD Madison plant.

Air testing last fall near BD's facility in Covington found ethylene oxide at levels state regulators called "deeply troubling." The company is legally permitted to use the gas to sterilize medical devices.

The Covington tests prompted the state to enter into the consent order with BD and to conduct its own ongoing air monitoring. That order was later amended after the state claimed the company had violated the agreement by failing to report additional emissions from a undisclosed warehouse.

Meanwhile, Sterigenics in Cobb remains shuttered after the county pulled its permits for allegedly being out of compliance with fire code.

Both the Covington and Cobb facilities came under scrutiny after they were flagged in a 2018 federal report for potential increased cancer risk.

Madison was not highlighted in that report. The state has not alleged any violations at the smaller Madison plant, nor is it conducting air tests there. Nevertheless, the $65,000 awarded to the city for mitigation matches the cost of air testing in Covington.

Madison Councilman Eric Joyce said he expects the air monitoring will reassure residents. But, he said, the government has a duty to do its own testing, especially given the proximity of the new county hospital less than a mile away from the plant.

“I don’t have a lot of faith that BD is totally honest with the public in terms of what danger we face,” he said.

Joyce added that he was concerned about the company’s response to questions about its risk management plan.

Federal law requires facilities that use large amounts of hazardous substances to file such plans with the EPA, which makes them available to the public under the Right to Know Act. In November, Joyce sent an email to BD raising concerns about what appeared to be inaccurate and missing information in the company’s plan.

In response, Joyce said he was told the document was outdated and the company had de-registered because the amount of ethylene oxide stored on site was below the reporting threshold.

Joyce called the Right to Know report “a little window” into potential safety issues.

“This window, which was kind of opaque to begin with since it was so rife in errors, that window is now closed,” he said. “We are now more reliant on what they’re telling us and less reliant on public information, and I find that to be kind of sad.”

In a statement, BD confirmed it withdrew from the Right to Know program in June 2019. The statement said company officials have always worked directly with the city’s fire department, and that the fire chief has visited the facility on numerous occasions and “is familiar with the procedures in the unlikely event of an emergency situation.”

The statement went on to say that air monitoring in Covington conducted over several months since the consent order was signed show ethylene oxide levels “no different from average levels that U.S. (Environmental Protection Agency) found at their monitoring locations across the country.”

The EPA only began widespread ethylene oxide monitoring after it reclassified the chemical as a potent carcinogen in 2016. Many of those readings have been above the screening level the agency uses to investigate potential increased cancer risk.

Public health experts have said results show the need for further testing and study, particularly around known industrial sources. The chemical industry has seized on the same findings to argue ethylene oxide is everywhere and therefore industry can’t be held responsible.

Mayor Perriman appeared less concerned than his colleague on city council. He echoed many of the industry talking points about alternative sources of ethylene oxide, such as lawn mowers and trucks, which he said could render air testing moot.

“I don’t want to jump the gun until we have more facts from them,” he said, referring to the company. “There’s no point in spending money if it’s not going to do any good.”

While some residents have expressed concern, the plant and its emissions don’t seem to be the talk of the town.

Rick Crown, a landscape gardener and 38-year resident of Madison, said he wanted the city to do its own independent air testing. After all, he reasoned, why else would the court give the city money for mitigation?

“We’ve been reliant on the companies to self report and that has not worked out very well,” Crown said. “We should be more proactive.”

Steve Stempinski, a longtime resident and owner of Steve’s Place, a jewelry repair shop downtown, said he has not heard anything about the issue other than what he’s read in the local paper.

“I can’t say nobody is worried, but it’s not a high rate of concern that I’ve seen,” Stempinski said.

The EPD said it had not been invited nor would it attend the March 26 meeting. The only complaint against the plant dates from 2006, and the case was closed after the company promised to take remedial action.