State offers assurance over toxic emissions, but residents want action

Sherry Corey (right) and Laura Barnes (center) protest against Sterigenics near the Sterigenics plant in Smyrna. (Alyssa Pointer/

Sherry Corey (right) and Laura Barnes (center) protest against Sterigenics near the Sterigenics plant in Smyrna. (Alyssa Pointer/

State regulators sought to assure lawmakers they were taking seriously concerns over toxic emissions from several industrial facilities in Georgia during a conference call Friday, as angry residents demanded immediate action.

“Dirty air, they don’t care!” about a dozen protesters chanted at the intersection of Plant Atkinson and Atlanta Road in Smyrna. Behind them sat the nondescript brick building belonging to Sterigenics, a medical sterilization plant they want shuttered until independent air testing can be conducted.

“We’re here today to let our neighbors know what they can do to get involved and to also demand from our government leaders that they close this plant down,” said Bridget Kurt, who lives about a mile from the facility. She was wearing an orange “Stop Sterigenics” shirt and carrying a sign with the same message.

Meanwhile, on the conference call, Richard Dunn, the director of the Environmental Protection Division, side-stepped a question from Rep. David Wilkerson, D-Powder Springs, about whether the state could issue stricter rules for the chemical in question, ethylene oxide, a carcinogen.

“The change would come from U.S. EPA,” Dunn said, referring to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

State environmental regulators can and do take action separately from the federal government.

In Illinois, the state closed a Sterigenics plant in Willowbrook after air testing showed alarming levels of the toxin. A follow up study by the Illinois Department of Public Health found higher rates of cancer among women and girls in surrounding neighborhoods, the Chicago Tribune reported.

In response to a request for clarification about the EPD’s authority to regulate ethylene oxide, Dunn said in a statement: “We believe the quickest, most effective way to get results is to work with these companies to reduce emissions voluntarily.”

“That sounds to me like a dodge,” said Kurt Ebersbach, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

While federal regulators set the regulatory minimum, “States can always go above the federal floor,” Ebersbach said. “There’s absolutely nothing that prohibits that.”

Not only do the facilities’ permits include a provision allowing the state to unilaterally revoke or amend them, state law grants Dunn emergency powers that include closing the plants, Ebersbach said.

State Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, who represents the district where Sterigenics is located, slammed the EPD for its response to the issue.

“Either EPD does not understand its role or doesn’t intend to fulfill it,” she said. “Inaction is not acceptable.”

When asked what she would do if the state fails to act, Jordan said, “whatever I need to do to protect my people.”

What does the law say? 

Georgia law mirrors federal rules for medical sterilization facilities.

Those rules require a plant to control 99 percent of its ethylene oxide emissions.

It does not set a limit on total allowable emissions, or ambient concentration levels.

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