Less ethylene oxide than usual will be coming out of the Sterigenics plant in the Smyrna area while construction takes place there to improve emissions controls through January 2020, the global company says.

It has already started its “emission reduction project,” which should take total ethylene oxide emissions from the Cobb facility from the current level of about 260 pounds per year down to about 38 pounds per year, company documents show.

Ethylene oxide is a carcinogen, predominantly used in gas form, that becomes the main ingredient in antifreeze when combined with water vapor, health experts explain.

The chemical is used in gas form by Sterigenics and other companies throughout the United States to sterilize medical equipment that does not withstand other types of commercial sterilization.

Sterigenics was ordered by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to reduce its emissions of ethylene oxide “as expeditiously as possible,” according to an Aug. 7 consent order signed by Georgia EPD Director Richard Dunn and Sterigenics President Philip Macnabb.

“As soon as possible and, in any case, within 30 days of execution of this order, respondent shall commence construction on planned modifications to the facility,” the consent order states.

Sterigenics has since published its construction schedule for the project, stating work began Aug. 26 and will continue until Jan. 7, 2020, during which time the company will occasionally be required to suspend or limit operations.

That means the amount of ethylene oxide being used through January 2020, and the amount emitted into the air from the plant accordingly, will be less than when the plant is operating normally.

This month, crews are demolishing parts of the facility and starting to install equipment to better capture the toxic gas, the company’s schedule shows.

Cobb Commissioner Bob Ott, whose district includes the Sterigenics facility, says he was told by the company its Cobb operations would effectively be “shut down” this week for construction.

Bob Ott MUG

Bob Ott

The MDJ visited the Cobb plant Tuesday, when its parking lot appeared full and workers were visible on site.

Ott says Sterigenics has committed to providing monthly information about its operations and emissions to Cobb civic leaders throughout construction.

He said the elected officials will in turn pass that information on to the independent testing firm GHD, which Cobb County and the cities of Smyrna and Atlanta have commissioned to conduct air sampling.

“Testing is going to start soon,” Ott told the MDJ on Tuesday, adding that details of GHD’s sampling on behalf of Cobb, Smyrna and Atlanta will remain secret so the testing isn’t compromised.

People living and working around the facility, at 2971 Olympic Industrial Drive near the Vinings and Smyrna communities, are concerned about the elevated cancer risks there and want to know how much Sterigenics and its use of ethylene oxide is at fault.

In late 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined ethylene oxide was a carcinogen and updated its risk calculations.

Then a National Air Toxics Assessment published in 2018 identified census tracts around the Smyrna-area Sterigenics plant had potentially elevated cancer risks due to ethylene oxide emissions, prompting a closer look by authorities.

Results of that 2018 assessment were not widely publicized until July this year, angering residents and legislators alike who said they should have known about the elevated cancer risk as soon as the data was available.

The Georgia EPD says, based on 2019 modeling analysis of emissions from the plant, the risk from ethylene oxide concentrations in surrounding residential neighborhoods does not exceed 100 in one million, which the EPA uses in regulations as a general guide for determining the maximum acceptable lifetime cancer risk.

But many residents of Smyrna, the wider Cobb County and even Atlanta hope the independent air sampling due to happen around the facility in coming weeks and months will reveal the true risk.

That is why some people, including members of the grassroots opposition group called Stop Sterigenics Georgia, are worried the construction at the plant over the next five months will skew test results because the facility won’t be operating at its normal production level while testing occurs.

Bridget Kurt, who lives about a mile from the Cobb Sterigenics plant, is cynical about the likelihood of Sterigenics providing accurate emissions data to the EPD and local authorities, and therefore about the usefulness of the planned air testing.

She and other Stop Sterigenics Georgia members think the Georgia EPD gave Sterigenics a “sweetheart” permit and that staff at the state agency remain too trusting of the company.

“I already have asthma and bronchitis problems since I moved to Atlanta. Think of the kids and babies and what their little bodies have been subjected to,” Kurt told the MDJ.

The Georgia EPD is doing its own testing around the facility, at a quarter-mile, half-mile and one mile away, as well testing in south DeKalb County and in rural southern Georgia to establish baseline ethylene oxide concentrations in the air for comparison.

That is in addition to the independent testing by GHD commissioned by the Smyrna, Cobb and Atlanta governments with the aim of determining actual ethylene oxide concentrations in neighborhoods near the site.

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Sterigenics told the MDJ it will try to help the Georgia EPD and other stakeholders to match air sample results with actual emissions from the plant, given the irregular and limited operations during construction.

“Gov. Kemp and EPD have requested that Sterigenics move expeditiously to further reduce ethylene oxide emissions from the facility, and that is what we are doing,” company spokesman Bryan Locke said. “The company has provided a construction schedule to EPD under the consent order and will cooperate fully with the state and the county’s air quality monitoring committee by providing more detail on the actual production schedule for the facility on a periodic basis.”

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