The medical equipment sterilization company, Sterigenics, is defending itself, saying it safely operates within regulations but will further address environmental concerns in the wake of news reports suggesting its Smyrna plant has cancer-causing potential.
The Illinois-based company that operates the facility south of Atlanta Road near the Chattahoochee River said its plant “safely operates in compliance with permits and regulations established by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and the United States Environmental Protection Agency.”
However, the company went on to acknowledge the concern surrounding emissions of ethylene oxide, saying in a statement it has “consistently taken voluntary steps to reduce emissions over the past five years,” resulting in the reduction of 90% of the emissions at the facility near Smyrna. The company also committed to installing further emissions-reducing measures in the next 12 to 14 weeks, should the Georgia Environmental Protection Division permit the action.
The measures would reduce the emissions of ethylene oxide to “negligible levels,” the company said.
State Rep. Erick Allen, D–Smyrna, said he appreciated the company’s offer but that “by no means brings us to a resolution.” Allen said he has negotiated with Sterigenics executives a public meeting to take place locally on Tuesday, though a location and time has not yet been set.
“I think it’s important that we get them here to answer questions and be held to account,” he said. “It’s going to be up to us as elected officials and community stakeholders to hold them accountable to this process, as well as hold (the Environmental Protection Division) accountable to make sure there are public notices and proper testing going forward.”
Allen said he is holding back from being “overly optimistic or overly pessimistic” until he hears what the Sterigenics executives have to say next week. But, he said, it is a good sign that they’ll be traveling to the metro Atlanta area to have discussions surrounding the environmental and health concerns.
“I don’t doubt that there will be a need to possibly address this issue through legislation or some of the regulations through (the Environmental Protection Division) but for now, the best we can ask for is for everyone to be communicating,” Allen said.
Sen. Jen Jordan, D–Buckhead, agreed with Allen. Jordan said she appreciated the statement as a first step, but the company’s claim that its facility is operating safely is based on outdated understanding of the chemical emissions by environmental agencies. She said the chemical is understood to be far more dangerous now than it was only a few years ago.
“Now we know differently, and because we know differently, we have to act on that information,” she said. “I don’t want anybody to think that a statement or promises are going to be enough. Saying that you’re going to install emission reducing technology is great, but the issue is, we have to make sure that the science is right.”
Cobb County Commissioner Bob Ott, who represents the area, said he is working with Allen and Jordan to follow up on the community’s concerns.
While Ott said he is aware of the closure of a Sterigenics facility in Illinois for the same emissions following a decision from that state’s environmental protection agents, he said the Illinois Legislature is bound by different laws than Georgia. Ott said he would hold off on a decision until Georgia’s environmental experts weighed in.
“It’s really a state and federal jurisdiction, not the county. So I’m going to a meeting on Aug. 1 (with environmental experts) to kind of bring the community up to date on what’s going on,” he said. “It’s not that the county doesn’t care. ... The reason I’m still involved in going to the meetings is to make sure the folks’ concerns get taken care of.”
In the meantime, Ott said citizens in his district should know a team of officials elected to represent the surrounding community is working to ensure they are properly protected.
Smyrna City Councilman Charles “Corkey” Welch said though the facility doesn’t fall in city limits, the effects of emissions are of concern to its citizens. Like Ott, Welch said he and other city officials are staying updated but will wait for word from environmental experts on whether the company’s solutions will be enough before making a decision on next steps.
But, he said, should it turn out that Sterigenics’ solutions aren’t enough to protect the citizens of Smyrna, council members and city officials will continue their pressure on state representatives to ensure the public’s safety.
Last week, Georgia Health News and WebMD published a report citing elevated levels of ethylene oxide at three locations in the metro Atlanta area, including two census tracts in the Smyrna area where the Sterigenics plant is located. The reports indicated ethylene oxide is a cancer-causing chemical.
In 2016, the EPA determined ethylene oxide caused cancer, a revelation that previously had been in question, according to Georgia Health News. In 2018, the EPA also published a list of 109 census tracks where cancer risks were elevated because of exposure to airborne toxins, most commonly ethylene oxide, Georgia Health News reported. Two census tracts in the Smyrna area were on the list, but the communities in danger of harm were not made aware until last week’s report.