In August, a medical sterilization plant in the Smyrna area was indefinitely closed. More than three months later, local officials and the plant’s owner have yet to come to an agreement about when, and under what terms, it can reopen.
The Sterigenics plant uses ethylene oxide, a carcinogen, to sterilize packaged medical equipment, a method that’s under scrutiny by federal, state and local regulators because of associated health risks to people exposed to the toxic emissions.
In Cobb, the county government has barred Sterigenics from resuming sterilization operations at its plant, which employs about 30 people, while seeking clarity around its occupancy status and operational safety.
“The company and county continue to work with an independent third party to identify what exactly the facility will need to do to comply with the latest fire codes,” said Ross Cavitt, Cobb’s communications director. “Sterigenics agreed to fund the third party’s work. Both sides have had some interaction with this third party but no report has yet been generated.”
Cavitt said there’s no timeline for completion of the report, but once it’s finished “there will be meetings to discuss it and determine a path forward.”
“As of right now Sterigenics is not cleared to resume operations,” Cavitt told the MDJ.
Sterigenics had no comment when asked recently about its Cobb plant. It is keeping staff employed at the facility, imposing tasks like cleaning and training that don’t involve the use of ethylene oxide.
Cobb Commissioner Bob Ott, who represents the area, said it’s his understanding the company has yet to provide all the information needed by the third party report writer.
“There’s still information missing to be able to complete the report,” Ott said. “That’s kind of what the holdup is.”
Ott said he’s in regular communication with Sterigenics’ spokespeople who inform him of activity at the Cobb plant, knowing he constantly gets asked questions from constituents.
“People ring when they see trucks there, because they know it’s supposed to be closed,” Ott said. “It’s often Sterigenics customers picking up product that they stored at the plant which hasn’t been sterilized because of the closure.”
Janet Rau, president of Stop Sterigenics Georgia, said members of the grassroots protest group are still hopeful the plant will never be allowed to reopen, but also “anxious to know one way or another.”
“I had someone come up to me yesterday who really wants to buy a house in the area,” Rau said. “She says she can’t buy the house she wants that’s perfect in every other way, without knowing what’s happening with Sterigenics.”
Rau and many other group members say they don’t trust the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to ensure Sterigenics isn’t harming the community, believing it has already failed on that front by permitting the plant’s operation for decades.
They are instead turning to county leaders and are supporting several legal motions, hoping public pressure will force legislators to take a tough stance.
“The sentiment that we are getting is that people really want to do something, and are frustrated that there’s nothing they can do,” Rau said. “They’re really craving some action.”
Group members have been keeping a close eye on the plant during its closure, watching for activity, she said, adding that plenty of work is going on, based on the number and frequency of commercial and private vehicles visiting the site.
“We have have ample people driving past on a daily basis, taking photos and updating members,” Rau said. “The county came out the other day when they started getting calls from our members about activity at the facility.”
Rau is also expecting responses in coming weeks from a fresh batch of Open Records Act requests about the plant.
“I believe that the Sterigenics facility where it’s located, within proximity to schools and with the population density, is a completely inappropriate place for that kind of facility to operate,” she said. “They shouldn’t be there. These things do not belong in populated areas.”
Rau said the group’s long term goal is for ethylene oxide to be treated as asbestos is now.
“We know it’s dangerous and it kills people,” she said. “Even though it has a good to it, the bad outweighs the good, so we have to treat it in the same way, and it’s going to take multiple levels of government and multiple agencies to all come together around this.”