You might be interested to know that the Sterigenics plant in Cobb County is closed. But no high-fives, please. It is only for the week as new equipment is being installed.
That information comes courtesy of Cobb County Commissioner Bob Ott, in whose 2nd District the plant resides. Ott is one of several officials at all levels of government caught in the middle between one side that says it is not only following the law but exceeding it and the other side that wonders who the law is supposed to be protecting — the affected industries or the public? And why are they just now finding out what has been going on for years in their neighborhood? It is not a comfortable place to be.
As background, Sterigenics sterilizes medical products and medical instruments for use in hospitals. To do so requires the use of a gas known as ethylene oxide, or EO. Some of that gas is then emitted into the air. Hence, the problem.
Ethylene oxide is a known carcinogen which has the potential to cause cancer. The Environmental Protection Agency decided after a 10-year study concluded in 2016 that EO was more dangerous than they thought. Last year, the EPA identified 109 census tracts across the country where cancer risks were higher because of exposure to airborne toxins. Most of the risks were due to one chemical: ethylene oxide. The highest risks were in 12 census tracts euphemistically known as “cancer alley,” including the Smyrna area.
How do I know all of this? I didn’t hear it from the bureaucrats. I read it in a report published by WebMD and Georgia Health this past July. The dolts at EPA and the state’s Environmental Protection Division didn’t see fit to tell us. The result has been a public relations disaster for Sterigenics, the EPA and the EPD. To say the public is outraged is a gross understatement. To say the situation is ripe for political posturing is obvious. So far, most of the politicians involved, including Ott, have taken the high ground.
Ott gives high marks to outgoing Smyrna Mayor Max Bacon for putting together an Air Quality Oversight Committee to look into the Sterigenics emissions issue. The group includes Cobb County, the cities of Smyrna and Atlanta, the Cobb County School District, private citizens and government agencies. “We were originally told that this was a state issue,” he says, “and we would not be involved.” But involved they are, and Ott says they are working together well.
The commissioner took some heat at a recent town meeting between citizens and representatives of the agencies involved in the Sterigenics issue. With more than 900 people in attendance at the Cobb County Civic Center, questions were not allowed from the floor; rather, questions were submitted ahead of time and preselected for response.
Ott says that format was a “deal-breaker” with the EPA, otherwise they wouldn’t participate. “It was more important to get them in the room with the public,” he said, “and in three weeks’ time, we were able to get them, EPD, Georgia Public Health, the governor’s office and the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry together, along with our local legislators and three members of Congress, to meet with our citizens.”
Ott pinpoints two specific problems that have risen from the Sterigenics controversy — a lack of transparency on the part of Sterigenics management and the bureaucrats and a strong and understandable distrust on the part of the public as a result. It doesn’t help that four large Realtors in Atlanta are currently asking purchasers in the Smyrna-Vinings area to do their own independent research on the potential risks coming from EO emissions and to sign an agreement to absolve the Realtors from any liability. “That is not helpful,” he says with a note of irony.
The commissioner is meeting with the Realtors as well as with leaders of the Cobb Chamber of Commerce in an attempt to enlist their help in muting the panic button. He has also urged that Philip MacNabb, the Sterigenics president, become more proactive. “There needs to be more information sharing all around,” Ott says.
Toward that end, Ott announced at the Board of Commissioners’ meeting last week that he has a commitment from Sterigenics that it will provide a monthly report to the Air Quality Oversight Committee on all incidents at its Cobb facility that aren’t required to be reported to the state EPD.
Going forward, Ott says government must do a better job of not allowing residential development near industrial areas in order to avoid the kind of situation currently facing the neighborhoods near Sterigenics. He says he has suggested to Gov. Brian Kemp that government leaders across the state understand the potential dangers of co-locating residential and industrial development when looking at bringing new industry into Georgia.
While juggling his job as a Delta Air Lines pilot — he has flown 14 ocean crossings since the Sterigenics controversy first surfaced — and his duties as the commissioner of one of Cobb’s largest and most affluent districts, Ott now finds himself in the middle of the Sterigenics debate. He didn’t create this situation, but he is doing his best to help find a reasonable solution for all involved.