Cobb County is investigating a sudden change in building occupancy status by Sterigenics in regards to its controversial medical sterilization facility near Smyrna.
The company recently obtained a building permit from the county to install extra measures to capture and control emissions of the carcinogenic chemical ethylene oxide, which it uses in gas form to sterilize over a million medical devices every day.
The permit is here:
Ethylene oxide is highly combustible and when combined with water it forms the main ingredient used in antifreeze.
In the Aug. 15 permit documents, Sterigenics lists its building occupancy type as “industrial-high hazard,” despite previously listing it as “storage.”
This change in status prompted the county’s Development and Inspections Division to review whether this move is warranted, Cobb communications director Ross Cavitt told the MDJ on Thursday.
“It was only when Sterigenics applied for a permit in late July for their current project did they list a change in their occupancy status,” he said. “During this review, the county has placed a hold on the company’s permit request. This review is ongoing.”
The permit allows Sterigenics to complete the emissions control work, which began on Aug. 26 and is expected to finish in early October.
But the permit also states Sterigenics is subject to investigation by building officials and must comply with all current legislation, county ordinances and health and safety requirements, as well as correct any errors found in its plans and specifications.
Cavitt said Sterigenics, which has occupied its site off Atlanta Road for decades, listed its occupancy status as storage as recently as 2007, and this did not change when it applied for permits for various work in 2014 and 2015, when back vents were installed on emissions chambers inside the plant.
He provided additional information to the MDJ Friday afternoon, clarifying the county’s response to the recent Sterigenics permit application.
The county did initially issue a permit to Sterigenics for some “exhaust and scrubbing work” that was required by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, Cavitt said.
“There were concerns about this permit from the fire marshal and the development and inspections division manager that prompted a meeting,” he said. “During that subsequent meeting, Sterigenics officials indicated they needed a revision of their plans and a new process.”
Cavitt said this prompted the fire marshal to apply the new occupancy status of industrial-high hazard and review the plant as it relates to that designation, in conjunction with the county’s chief building official.
The change in status from storage to industrial-high hazard requires a thorough look at the facility in question, a host of extra safety measures and involvement from the Georgia EPD, according to a nonprofit opposed to Sterigenics operating near Smyrna close to homes, schools and churches in the south Cobb area.
Stop Sterigenics Georgia, which has over 1,500 followers on its public Facebook page and 4,500 members in a private Facebook group, sent a letter detailing its concerns to the Cobb County government Friday, members told the MDJ.
The letter relates specifically to the company’s recent permit and change in occupancy status.
Group members told the MDJ they want the Sterigenics plant to be shut down until the company can prove it’s complying with all current federal, state and county laws.
“Sterigenics is in direct violation of section 13 and 14 of the Special Land Use Permit from the Georgia EPD in 1994 and approved by the Board of Commissioners of Cobb County by circumventing and modifying the facility without proper notification to the Georgia EPD and should therefore be subject to current code compliance and environmental impact studies in order to be issued a building permit,” the group’s letter states.
Members are also critical of the Georgia EPD, claiming the state agency has dropped the ball in its obligation to ensure dangerous chemicals being used commercially don’t put people’s health at risk.
The latest modeling on Sterigenics emissions of ethylene oxide from its Cobb plant show there are higher cancer risks surrounding the facility than what federal regulators deem acceptable for long-term exposure. This has been known by the Georgia EPD for over a year.
“The Georgia EPD, with the information provided to date, has failed to police and monitor the actions of Sterigenics since 1995,” Stop Sterigenics Georgia’s letter to the county states.
Georgia EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers said the agency’s last inspection of the Cobb Sterigenics plant was on Oct. 25, 2017.
The inspection report is here:
Stop Sterigenics Georgia has also lodged official comments with the Georgia EPD regarding a permit application filed with the state agency by Sterigenics at the end of July for the emissions control work currently being undertaken.
The EPD hastily approved a consent order for the work, despite not receiving required detail from Sterigenics, the group claimed, in conjunction with Environment Georgia and the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club.
“Because Sterigenics has failed to submit a high-quality application as required by EPD’s procedures for expediting permitting, EPD should reject the application and require correction of the deficiencies described above,” the three environmental organizations stated in their Sept. 12 comments, for which they received assistance from environmental regulation experts and the Southern Environmental Law Center.
The comments to the Georgia EPD are here:
While the county is reviewing Sterigenics’s change in occupancy status for its Cobb plant, county staff are under no obligation to inspect the building per state law, Cavitt said.
He provided the MDJ with the fire marshal’s summary of tenant spaces that do have to be inspected, which include buildings more than three stories, those used by three or more families, schools, racetracks, stadiums, grandstands, large assembly venues, churches, daycare centers and assisted living facilities.
Gov. Brian Kemp’s office is also investigating the Sterigenics facility in Cobb County amid widespread public concern its emissions are cancer-causing.
Kemp met with the MDJ this week, but had little to say on the subject, simply stating the investigation is ongoing and therefore he has to be careful about commenting.
Sterigenics spokesman Bryan Locke sent the MDJ a statement Friday evening stating the company "submitted a local building permit application for its facility to install enhancements to the air emission control systems."
"That permit was granted," Locke said. "The sole purpose of the new equipment is to reduce emissions and the construction to install that equipment remains on track."
He said the work does not change the sterilization operations at the facility.
"We have been cooperating fully with local and state authorities throughout this process and will continue to do so."