Cobb County Commission Chairman Mike Boyce has issued an emergency order allowing the Sterigenics plant near Smyrna to resume operations.
The company’s ability to sterilize medical equipment has been deemed “crucial to fight against COVID-19,” the county said in a news release Wednesday.
Boyce’s release says the decision comes at the urging of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which sent a letter to Gov. Brian Kemp’s office on March 19, requesting to speak with county officials on the topic of reopening the Sterigenics facility. The FDA’s letter cited the pandemic and the lack of personal protective equipment, such as medical gowns and masks, as a reason for the action.
The plant just north and west of the Chattahoochee River shut down in late August to expedite emissions improvements as requested by the state. This was during a time when concerns from the surrounding community began to rise over use of a cancer-causing chemical, ethylene oxide, for sterilization of medical equipment and instruments.
Sterigenics completed a negative air pressure test of its facility Monday, and the county reports that the chief of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s Air Protection Branch says the emissions system “appeared to be working as designed.” Testing of the new emission controls were called off in February after county and state intervention.
EPD officials are awaiting a final test report to review before the facility can be cleared to resume operations, according to the county’s release.
The limited emergency authorization expires at the end of the emergency declaration, restricts the amount of ethylene oxide permitted on site and provides for immediate reporting of any incident at the facility.
Asked about the decision, Boyce told the MDJ “the order speaks for itself.” Commissioner Bob Ott, who represents the area where the plant is located, declined to comment as he said he is reviewing the declaration.
In response to Boyce’s action, Commissioner Lisa Cupid told the MDJ she was disheartened.
Cupid said she has seen no evidence or documentation — in the FDA’s letter, from Sterigenics or otherwise — that the reopening of the Sterigenics plant will help with the shortage of personal protective equipment at medical facilities in the state.
“There’s no evidence stating that there’s no other alternative and that medical facilities are not getting the needed equipment because Sterigenics isn’t opening,” she said.
Citing past studies finding elevated cancer risk linked to ethylene oxide, Cupid said on one hand the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is giving Cobb residents reason for concern and on the other, the FDA is circumventing that.
Repeating sentiments she’d previously expressed to the MDJ, Cupid said Boyce’s emergency order essentially trades one public health risk for another.
“I think this move is showing that there’s certainly a greater concern for COVID-19 than there is for the risk associated with ethylene oxide, and I think it’s unfair to put the community in this position without having that exigence of, ‘but for Sterigenics opening, medical facilities would not be able to address COVID-19,’” she said.
Cupid also noted that the facility is resuming operation while investigations into whether it meets building and fire code have not yet concluded.
Janet Rau, president of local advocacy group Stop Sterigenics Georgia, had sharper words for Boyce.
“He’s a coward … because he’s the chairman, and it’s his signature at the bottom of it,” she said shortly after receiving the news from reporters.
Rau said Boyce could have chosen to say no and allow Gov. Brian Kemp or President Donald Trump to use their power to open the facility.
She added that her group has repeatedly reached out to Boyce for various discussions, but he has directed them to Ott and County Manager Rob Hosack.
“They won’t get on a call with us,” she said.
Stop Sterigenics leadership says the shortage of personal protective equipment is a manufacturing problem and not one of sterilization. Medical professionals have told the group they don’t need equipment sterilized at the level Sterigenics offers. That, Rau said, shows the reopening of the Cobb Sterigenics facility does more harm than good.
She said without results from environmental agencies’ air quality testing showing emissions are no longer a threat to the surrounding community, the facility should not be allowed to reopen. She said the Georgia EPD has not released data from air testing that took place starting in December.
“I’m sorry, but I have no faith in the Georgia EPD,” she said. “The community around this facility are being put into jeopardy (by the county’s order) and are having a huge amount of stress laid on top of them at a time when they really shouldn’t be asked to sacrifice more. It’s incredibly difficult.”
Representatives from Sterigenics said in a statement that the county's order allows the plant to operate for 21 days and only to sterilize personal protective equipment, limitations the company says place the plant "woefully short" of measures needed to protect public health.
"Rather than engage with Sterigenics regarding an appropriate plan for the operation of its facility to protect the public, the county unilaterally issued an order that omits necessary medical products at a critical time," the statement reads in part. "As we resume our operation on a limited basis, we are also working to fully resume all sterilization operations in the interest of protecting public health."