This is a story of good government and bad government. We have seen a bit of both (mostly bad) in the recent controversy involving the Sterigenics facility in Smyrna.
If you are not aware, and you should be, Sterigenics has been pumping out ethylene oxide, a proven carcinogen, into the atmosphere for years at extremely unhealthy rates while sterilizing medical equipment.
Here is where bad government comes into play. Both the bureaucrats at the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state’s Environmental Protection Division have known of the danger for years, but it took an investigative article by WebMD and Georgia Health News last month to let us the rest of us know what has been happening to the air we breathe.
The publication reported that the EPA added ethylene oxide to a list of chemicals that “definitely cause cancer.” That was in 2016. Last year, the agency identified 109 “census tracts” where the cancer risks were “elevated.” That includes the area in and around Smyrna and far beyond. The bureaucrats just didn’t see the need make that news public.
Now a note about good government. This controversy is ready-made for political showboating and grandstanding. So far, local elected officials have resisted the urge. One of those elected officials is state Rep. Erick Allen, a first-term Democrat, who represents the Vinings area.
We sat down over coffee recently to talk about what has turned into a full-blown crisis. Up until the 2016 EPA report, Sterigenics had been emitting more than 2,000 pounds of ethylene oxide a year into the environment, all perfectly legal. After the 2016 report, that amount was voluntarily reduced to 226 pounds a year. Now, the company says it has received approval to get the number down to 38 pounds a year.
Rep. Allen says he doesn’t favor closing the facility as some have suggested, but he does think Sterigenics needs to halt operations until new equipment is installed. “That would be an act of good faith on the company’s part,” he said, adding there are 19 other plants around the country that could handle the job of sterilization of the medical equipment in the meantime.
Allen has high marks for his colleagues at the various levels of government. He says he has been working closely with state Sen. Jen Jordan, a Democrat, Cobb Commissioner Bob Ott, a Republican, and others as well as being in contact with Republican Congressman Barry Loudermilk and Democratic Congressman David Scott. Even Cobb Chairman Mike Boyce, a Republican, and his opponent in next year’s race, Democrat Lisa Cupid, are saying all the right things. The Atlanta newspapers call it “multigovernment bipartisanship.” I call it good government.
Allen is not quite as complimentary of the governor’s office. “They are late to the party,” he says. Gov. Brian Kemp now says his office is working with the EPA, CDC and Georgia Department of Public Health to host question-and-answer sessions with citizens in Cobb and Newton counties, the latter of which is home to Bard BD, another ethylene oxide emitter. A turn-away crowd at Campbell Middle School last week with Sterigenics President Phil Macnabb seems to have gotten his attention.
Who is going to end up as quarterback of this politically fragile bipartisan effort? That remains to be seen. I am betting the governor’s office. Allen says flatly, “I don’t trust them not to turn it into a political event.” Gov. Kemp has made a big point of getting rid of regulatory restrictions. In Allen’s opinion, the Sterigenics fiasco is regulation needing to happen.
“Right now,” he says, “current rules allow companies like Sterigenics too much leeway in self-reporting their performance. That is like a restaurant contacting the Health Department to inform them they have passed food inspection and that there are no problems. It should not work that way.”
The Vinings rep said that without public pressure and left to their own devices, it could take the EPA and the EPD a year or more to institute more stringent requirements for the emission of gases such as ethylene oxide. “I believe the changes could be done in a month or so,” Allen said.
While some are calling for independent air testing, Allen is not sure that is the best way to go. “There are too many other factors at play, such as the emissions from the nearby Georgia Power plant and diesel trucks in the vicinity. I am not sure how accurate that would be,” he says. Allen favors instead the testing of the emissions coming from the plant itself.
In the meantime, lawyers are already running television ads promoting class-action suits against Sterigenics and Bard BD. Sterigenics’ Macnabb is in full damage control — too little, too late — and the rest of us are scratching our heads wondering what bureaucrats were thinking — if they were — and hoping our elected officials continue to work together to assure a jittery public that they are acting in our best interest, not theirs.
I underwrite a Crisis Communications Leadership program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism. I predict this one is going to be a classic case study by the experts for years to come. As with most crises, it is one that should never have happened.