The reason we have federal regulators overseeing many industries is because, long ago, they proved they weren’t to be trusted. That’s not to say modern corporations are not ethical because many are. But there are also many others that will most assuredly do the wrong thing when nobody is watching.
Regulatory oversight ensures we have safe food, medicine, air, water and other essentials; trust but verify.
Republicans always argue federal regulations are an unnecessary burden on all businesses, that they kill jobs and hamper productivity. This is why the Trump administration is doing everything possible to get rid of regulations. Coincidentally, many corporations subject to federal regulations also happen to be big GOP donors. So it’s really not about job killing, it’s about the Benjamins.
In a front-page New York Times story last week, we learned the Federal Aviation Administration knew virtually nothing about the automated system on Boeing 737 Max that crashed two of the aircraft, one last October and another in March.
“Regulators had never independently assessed the risks of the dangerous software known a MCAS when they approved the plane in 2017,” the Times reported.
Thus, in Boeing’s rush to sell as many of the aircraft as possible — and with an assist from the FAA — safety took a backseat to profits. Instead of jobs, people were killed.
Closer to home, Sterigenics needs regulatory oversight but is managing to dodge it. The company’s Smyrna plant uses a dangerous carcinogenic chemical called ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment. After the gas is used it’s supposed to be captured by emission control equipment. But that’s evidently not happening as it should at the Smyrna plant.
One year ago, President Trump’s Environment Protection Agency concluded there are higher risks of cancer in the Smyrna neighborhoods around Sterigenics. Knowing this and the risks to area residents, the EPA immediately alerted the public, right? Wrong.
The agency, along with the Georgia Environment Protection Division, mysteriously kept it a secret. It took reports from WebMD and Georgia Health News last month to bring the public safety threat to light. It appears regulators thought it was better to let Sterigenics do business as usual. Now that the public knows, Gov. Brian Kemp is suddenly interested.
According to Georgia Health News, in 2016 the EPA determined that “ethylene oxide was far more dangerous than the scientists had understood before. The agency moved it from a list of chemicals that probably could cause cancer to a list of those that definitely caused cancer. The EPA also updated a key risk number for the chemical to reflect that it was 30 times more likely to cause certain cancers than scientists had once known.”
Sterigenics has a permit for the emissions, but it was issued before the EPA declared ethylene oxide definitely causes cancer. At a community meeting last week in Smyrna, company president Phil McNabb told the packed house his plant released 200 pounds of the chemical over 12 months. But in 2015, Sterigenics reported 3,574 pounds of ethylene oxide had been emitted. McNabb claims new technology has reduced the emissions but …“Our emissions are at a level that do not require us to report,” MacNabb said.
State regulators apparently do. Neither they nor the EPA have bothered to do air testing around the Smyrna plant.
“The fastest way to get additional emission reductions … is through voluntary measures,” the Georgia Environmental Protection Division said in a statement.
No, not really. At a Sterigenics plant in Illinois like the one in Smyrna, the EPA did test the air around the facility. The result showed high levels of ethylene oxide, escalating the cancer risk to 10 times what the agency considers acceptable. As a result, the plant suspended its operations.
MacNabb said the company’s work is vital to health care, that using ethylene oxide is the best way to sterilize medical equipment. But is that true? And how does exposing people who live around Sterigenics plants to the risk of cancer rationalize the company’s health care argument?
“The EPA and the administration as a whole are deferring to these companies to let them self-police, self-regulate and self-audit rather than taking a proactive role in helping to protect communities,” said Bruce Hensley, an attorney who is suing Sterigenics in Illinois on behalf of five residents who live near the company’s plant there. “They have been reporting their emissions for years and now, all of a sudden, them stopping is quite frightening.”
It might be time for Smyrna residents to lawyer up, too.
Self-regulation is a prescription for disaster, whether it’s airplanes or chemicals, yet Republicans continue their scorched earth deregulation policies nationwide and statewide, putting peoples’ lives at risk. A corporation like Sterigenics has only one concern: shareholder return. Public safety is obviously low on its priority list and it’s apparently low on the Republicans’ list, too.
Post script: I was saddened to learn of fellow MDJ columnist Dr. Melvyn Fein’s illness. My thoughts are with Mel and his family at this difficult time.