Already beset by reports of its daily release of a known carcinogen into the air, the Sterigenics plant near Smyrna is dealing with new revelations that it failed to report in a timely manner an April 2018 leak of 2.4 pounds of the cancer-causing chemical ethylene oxide.
Reports show an exhaust pump within a sterilization chamber at the facility became slightly detached on April 2, 2018, and at least 2.4 pounds of pure ethylene oxide was released into the air over southeast Cobb County.
During the time toxic vapor was leaking into the environment, from 9 a.m. to 9:12 a.m., children in the neighborhood would have been starting classes while workers were arriving at their jobs, unaware that a dangerous level of the cancer-causing chemical was floating around.
The toxic leak initially went unreported to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, despite Sterigenics recording rogue levels of ethylene oxide at 240 parts per million — levels that alerted staff to the fact there was a problem.
Acute exposure to ethylene oxide at that level causes eye and upper respiratory tract irritation and signs and symptoms of effects on the central and peripheral nervous systems, according to the National Advisory Committee for Acute Exposure Guideline Levels for Hazardous Substances.
The daily controlled ethylene oxide emissions from the Sterigenics facility, at 2971 Olympic Industrial Drive SE in the Atlanta part of Cobb County, near Smyrna, has been concerning residents and workers in surrounding neighborhoods since increased cancer risks there were publicized in July.
Sterigenics, an Illinois-headquartered global company with 47 facilities in 13 countries, uses ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment at its Cobb County plant.
The public outcry over that industrial use of a dangerous carcinogen near homes, schools and churches has prompted Sterigenics to sign a binding agreement with the Georgia EPD to significantly reduce its current ethylene oxide emissions — with measures expected to be in place by January 2020.
Sterigenics expects that work to reduce its total potential ethylene oxide emissions from the existing 3.28 tons to 0.18 tons. It says the actual amount of ethylene oxide emissions from its Cobb County plant should be reduced from the existing 227 pounds to 40 pounds.
Currently, it operates within regulatory guidelines, but that has done little to reassure those living and working in the vicinity.
A recently formed protest group called Stop Sterigenics Georgia received official reports about the company’s April 2018 ethylene oxide leak through Freedom of Information Act requests.
Documents shared with the MDJ show Sterigenics only notified the Georgia EPD about the leak on the evening of April 4, when Sterigenics General Manager Daryl Mosby emailed the agency.
He said the company was investigating an ethylene oxide release, estimated at the time to be over 10 pounds, the minimum amount that requires reporting by law.
In his email to Georgia EPD Environmental Compliance Specialist Jason Pietras, Mosby said “rogue” levels of ethylene oxide vapor, measuring 240 parts per million, were detected in part of a sterilization chamber at the Smyrna-area plant, prompting staff to don protective gear and investigate.
They found an exhaust pipe for a booster vacuum pump, designed to suck the toxic air through emissions control systems, had become slightly detached, causing leakage, Mosby said.
“The chamber was then stopped and maintenance completed the repair before the chamber was allowed to complete the after vacuum phase,” his email states. “We estimate that over 10 pounds was released (reportable threshold) and engineering is trying to determine the exact amount,” his April 4, 2018, email states.
Subsequent email correspondence between Sterigenics and Georgia EPD staff in relation to the incident includes an official determination by the EPD that Sterigenics “failed to report” the ethylene oxide release as required by the Georgia Oil or Hazardous Material Spills or Release Act.
The legislation states all releases of hazardous material equal to or exceeding the reportable amount must be reported to the EPD through the Department of Natural Resources Emergency Operations Center immediately, and that all releases must be reported regardless of quantity if the amount cannot be determined within 15 minutes of the release.
In a letter to Sterigenics Environmental Health and Safety Manager Laura Hartman, the Georgia EPD states Sterigenics “failed to report” the April 2, 2018, ethylene oxide release as required by law, and that “failure to report future releases will result in the division seeking enforcement action which could include monetary penalties.”
Hartman responded to the Georgia EPD on April 18, 2018, saying Sterigenics determined the actual amount of ethylene oxide released during the leak was less than the minimum reportable amount, so it was not necessary to report it.
“An estimated 2.4 pounds of ethylene oxide was released into the environment,” Hartman said. “During this release, Sterigenics employees were evacuated from the area when the ethylene oxide concentration levels were elevated so no employees were exposed to high concentrations.”
Hartman added that because of the time of the leak and the height of the chemical release point, no adverse health impacts to employees or the public were anticipated.
“The company received no information suggesting that anyone was impacted outside the facility,” her letter states.
No mention of this leak was made during a two-hour Sterigenics and ethylene oxide presentation to the public on Monday by a collection of environment and health experts from various government agencies, including the Georgia EPD.
An estimated 900-plus people packed the Cobb County Civic Center to hear the experts talk about the company’s Atlanta facility, its past, present and predicted levels of ethylene oxide emissions in the area, and the effects of the carcinogen at varying exposure levels.
The Georgia EPD sent two staff to the Aug. 19 community meeting, including its director, Richard Dunn, whose name is on the agency’s letter to Sterigenics notifying the company of its failure to report the April 2018 leak.
Dunn spoke about the steps being taken by the agency to ensure Sterigenics remains compliant and voluntarily reduces its emissions going forward, but said nothing of the leak.
Kevin Chambers, the Georgia EPD’s communications director, says information about the leak was not intentionally omitted from the Aug. 19 community meeting and that all spills and releases reported to the division since 1998 are available through its online complaint tracking system.
“In this instance, the investigation concluded that the release did not exceed the reportable quantity threshold,” Chambers told the MDJ on Friday. “All future incidents will be added online.”
He said the Georgia EPD has an escalating enforcement strategy designed to swiftly return facilities to compliance with several enforcement options, including a “failure to report letter” such as that sent to Sterigenics following its 2018 leak.
“EPD determined that the facility had returned to compliance, the release was contained within the facility, and the release did not exceed the reportable quantity established in federal regulation,” Chambers said. “Accordingly, EPD concluded that a failure to report letter was the most appropriate course of action for enforcement for the April 2, 2018, incident (reported on April 4). If EPD had not been satisfied with the company’s response, the agency would have taken additional enforcement actions, to include monetary penalties or other corrective action.”
Sterigenics issued a statement to the MDJ late Friday in regard to the leak, saying it reported the ethylene oxide release in accordance with the Georgia EPD’s rules “out of an abundance of caution,” even though its investigation concluded less than the reportable amount was released into the air.
“Sterigenics takes its responsibility regarding the handling of ethylene oxide very seriously and has a consistent track record of compliance,” a company spokesperson said. “As evidence of the company’s cautious approach to over-reporting, Sterigenics has reported two incidents to the Georgia EPD over the past five years, including the April 2018 incident, and neither incident resulted in the release of more than ten pounds of ethylene oxide.”
Smyrna resident Janet Rau, president of Stop Sterigenics Georgia, says she tried to have the 2018 leak discussed at the Aug. 19 community meeting, but questions for the experts were vetted beforehand and hers in relation to the incident did not make the cut.
Rau says she lives 2.3 miles from the Sterigenics plant and is frustrated by the response from governmental agencies to concerns about the company’s use of ethylene oxide.
“I have a small level of confidence that they’re going to do a better job of transparency because we’re going to make them,” she told the MDJ on Friday. “I’m still not convinced that the EPD has the knowledge of ethylene oxide at a sufficient level to be the organization to supervise these corporations that are using it. The science on ethylene oxide has changed over the last few years and the regulations and the EPD simply have not kept pace.”
State Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Sandy Springs, represents part of the area surrounding the Sterigenics facility and has called for Gov. Brian Kemp to shut down the plant until independent testing accurately determines current ethylene oxide emissions.
Regarding the 2018 leak at the facility, Jordan says the public should have been told.
“EPD wants the public’s trust, all the while doing everything it can to keep the affected communities in the dark,” she told the MDJ on Friday. “EPD promises transparency on one hand, while hiding the ball with the other. A leak of ethylene oxide at the Sterigenics facility is exactly the type of information that the agency needed to be forthcoming about, especially in light of the widening credibility gap.”
Karen Hays, of the Georgia EPD’s Air Protection Branch, spoke at the Aug. 19 community meeting and was one of several panelists who responded to criticism from the public about withholding crucial information in regard to ethylene oxide emissions and increased cancer risk at the Atlanta Sterigenics facility.
“I hear you, that we should have talked to you long before that,” Hays said Monday night. “If we do see levels that are unacceptably high we’re going to have to go back to the company to get further emission reductions.”
State Rep. Erick Allen, D-Smyrna, whose District 40 includes parts of Mableton, Smyrna and Vinings, tweeted Friday afternoon about the need for Sterigenics to cease operations until more is known about the associated risk.
“Today’s reporting by the MDJ is just the latest example that our regulators are failing us and why public trust is eroded,” he tweeted, citing the MDJ’s article on the 2018 leak. “I urge Gov. Kemp to do what’s best for the community and not a private company.”