Who pays the price when Sterigenics comes to town?

Smyrna residents have become outraged when learning of the Sterigenics plant emitting ethylene oxide into the air. After the town hall meeting hosted by Georgia Rep. Eric Allen and Sen. Jen Jordan, residents learned from the president of Sterigenics himself, Phil McNabb, that the numbers he boasted for being so low and within regulatory limits at 200 pounds of EO per year are predated by levels close to 3,000 pounds per year.

What does this mean for the for the people who live close to the plant? It means they are all at risk of being impacted by EO in the air, which is a serious toxin and can have irreversible health effects. Not only are those in the immediate area at risk, but also those within a 5-mile radius. This includes Cobb and Fulton counties.

Interestingly enough, when you buy a home, you can have your soil and water tested by the Cobb County extension service, but what about your air? Most would assume that the air is safe, but Sterigenics has been in operation for decades with the majority of their impact grossly flying under the radar prior to 2019. They currently have pretty low levels at 200 pounds of EO annually, but how do you address all the prior years where numbers have been at 3,000 pounds or more? Even if Sterigenics packs its bags and heads to another community tomorrow, the damage is done and has been happening for decades.

People have very little hope and want this plant closed down, but even in Chicago where the Sterigenics plant was shut down for unsafe EO levels, a deal was made. They shut down the plant for a while and only to open it back up. Will Sterigenics’ fate be the same in Georgia?

Many people at the town hall were concerned with the lack of communication regarding the plant. They didn’t know that it existed, what it did or how it handled dangerous toxins. Cobb Commissioner Bob Ott made it clear he was against zoning the Sterigenics area for residential purposes when it was first put up for zoning decades ago. He knew this would become a problem, and he was right.

Outside of Sterigenics, there is much larger problem here. As confirmed by McNabb, Sterigenics is going above and beyond Georgia Environmental Protection Division regulations and they are doing nothing wrong. Should Georgia EPD be paying the price? If they had stricter regulations, Sterigenics would have to comply or ship out.

For many this plant has raised questions about what else is in the area? An assessment is needed of once industrial areas that have become residential. There should be one common place for people to go to see the industrial companies in their areas and understand what they produce. After all, this information is public, however, information being public and publicized are very different concepts.

At the end of the day, industrial areas mixed in residential areas when hazardous toxins are involved is just not a good idea. Decades’ worth of EO have been emitted into the air at various levels without the consent of the people. Independent assessments are needed, not only for Sterigenics but for every industrial company close to residential areas. Local, state, and federal elected officials can make this happen and should be working to make sure their constituents at minimum have knowledge of industrial impacts in their own backyard. The people close to Sterigenics have paid the price, but the debt is high, and the people are ready to collect.

Dr. Elesia Glover has a Ph.D. in public policy and works in city government.

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