Planned testing of a new emissions system at the temporarily closed medical sterilization plant in Cobb County was halted at the 11th hour Wednesday by intervention of the county and state governments.
Sterigenics, a global company that sterilizes medical equipment using a controversial gas linked to cancer, planned to test its new system Thursday morning at its plant on Olympic Industrial Drive in the Smyrna area, and notified the state accordingly on Feb. 14.
The planned testing did not involve the use of ethylene oxide, a carcinogen that has been linked to increased cancer risks. But it still did not satisfy county and state officials, who on Wednesday said inspection, approval and/or permits for the testing was required.
“Although the testing involves a test of the negative pressure system of the facility and is not using any ethylene oxide, it is unacceptable for Sterigenics to proceed without approval or permits from the county and the state,” said Cobb County Commissioner Bob Ott, who represents the area where the plant is located, in a public statement Wednesday afternoon.
Ott took credit for halting the testing upon learning of it late Tuesday night.
“I immediately reached out to the governor’s office to get EPD to stop this testing and force Sterigenics to comply with county rules and codes,” he said. “Through the efforts of the governor’s office and with coordination of Georgia EPD the testing has been cancelled pending Sterigenics obtaining the necessary permit and inspections of the negative pressure system.”
Meanwhile, the county is also still working with a third-party investigator about what health and safety requirements must be met at the sterilization plant, according to its occupancy status, so operations there can resume. Sterigenics is also providing information to the investigator, who has not been named by either party.
Although the company and county have not been forthcoming with information during this process, the understanding is that Sterigenics won’t operate its plant without county approval, and to date there’s no expectation of when that might happen.
“The third-party expert has not yet generated a report and there is no timetable for completion of the highly-technical report,” the county said in a statement provided to the MDJ on Wednesday by Cobb Communications Director Ross Cavitt. “Both parties are still trading information as part of that investigation. No sterilization is occurring at the facility. The test … was not a prelude to the company resuming operations.”
In its Wednesday afternoon press release, the county stated officials from the Georgia EPD had sought from the county a new authorization for the planned testing at the plant, “after receiving conflicting information about whether further permitting or inspections were needed.”
Cobb County Manager Rob Hosack indicated it would take some time to specifically address the concerns, the county stated.
Just before the state and county announced Sterigenics’ planned testing had been stopped, Bryan Locke, a communications manager working for the company, provided the MDJ with a statement on its behalf.
“Consistent with our consent order with the Georgia EPD, and with the approval of Cobb County, Sterigenics plans to test the new, enhanced emission control systems at our Atlanta facility to demonstrate their effectiveness,” the statement attributed to Sterigenics said. “The testing does not involve the use of ethylene oxide and operations at the facility remain suspended at this time. Sterigenics has consistently complied with laws and regulations.”
Sterigenics further stated it is “committed to continuing to work closely with state and local officials to complete the required reviews, including the fire and safety study required by Cobb County, and resume the safe sterilization of vital medical products and devices at its Atlanta facility.”
Georgia EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers confirmed to the MDJ on Wednesday morning that the testing would take place Thursday, then sent an update around midday stating it had been called off.
“We are waiting on word from Cobb County that all necessary approvals have been met,” Chambers said in the update. “We don’t expect that today, so the testing will not occur tomorrow.”
He said an Oct. 9, 2019, letter to Sterigenics from the Georgia EPD stated the company had to get necessary approval from the county prior to any testing activity at its Cobb plant.
Sterigenics President Phil Macnabb announced in October 2019 that the new emissions system at the Cobb plant is supposed to stop 99.99% of the air inside the facility from getting out.
That’s more control than any other such facility in the country, and a new national standard that Sterigenics will aim to meet with all its plants using ethylene oxide, Macnabb said.
Sterilization at the plant was stopped in August, pending the emissions improvements and approval from the county and the state.
The amount of ethylene oxide emitted through the new system at the Cobb plant, according to Sterigenics, will be minuscule and well under the state’s permitted maximum, but thousands of people in the community are worried about it regardless.
In July 2019 it was revealed that national air pollution monitoring had identified higher than normal cancer risks in areas around the Sterigenics plant in Cobb and other facilities also using ethylene oxide. It is something affecting other communities and companies around America, including in Illinois, where Sterigenics is headquartered.
A local group formed to protest the current use of ethylene oxide statewide, called Stop Sterigenics Georgia, and on Tuesday night the group’s founders warned members about the upcoming plant testing in Cobb, demanding an explanation.
“From what we know, the plans submitted to Cobb County haven’t been approved yet,” the group posted about the planned testing. “How is this legal? We deserve answers!!”
Stop Sterigenics Georgia urged people to call Gov. Brian Kemp’s office and the office of Cobb County Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Boyce immediately to get answers and also shared an “action alert” poster questioning whether Sterigenics was above the law.
This was also shared publicly by state Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Sandy Springs, on her Facebook page, along with information from Cobb Commissioner Lisa Cupid in relation to the planned testing.
“We are looking into whether or not this type of testing can be done without using EtO (ethylene oxide) and why the state is saying this must be done when the facility has not complied with Cobb County’s requirements to be able to reopen,” Jordan posted.
Cupid had published on her own public Facebook page a message attributed to the county about the planned testing, saying she had received multiple inquiries about it from constituents.
The statement attributed to the county by Cupid said a “high hazard” occupancy status was warranted for Sterigenics’ local plant and the county would not allow the company to resume the use of ethylene oxide “for any purpose until the county has completed all of its public safety diligence.”