Sen. Esteves holds town hall on Sterigenics, pledges to introduce new legislation
The Sterigenics plant in Smyrna was the topic of conversation during a recent virtual town hall meeting held by Sen. Jason Esteves, D-Atlanta, whose district includes part of Cobb.
Esteves, who started his first term in January, was joined by Cobb Commissioner Jerica Richardson, lawyer Eric Hertz, and Erick Allen, a former state representative who now serves as chairman of the Cobb Democrats.
The group discussed next steps that community members can take related to the ongoing controversy over the Sterigenics plant. During the discussion, Esteves pledged to introduce legislation to increase regulation on the testing and monitoring of ethylene oxide.
Over the last few years, citizens have raised concerns about Stergnicis and its impact on the community as it uses ethylene oxide, a known carcinogen, in the sterilization of medical equipment. Its’ emissions of ethylene oxide into the air has Stegenics facing lawsuits from various members of the community including Cobb residents, workers, and homeowners.
Esteves said during the meeting, “As a state senator, y’all are advocating for that, so I can certainly get legislation like that drafted. I know legislation has been drafted in the past. So I want to be transparent and say that legislation like that is not easy to get across the finish line. But I will certainly work hard to do it.”
Esteves also invited residents to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org with ideas for the legislation. He also told the community members that showing up in person is worth the effort and suggested that they lobby state legislators, the governor and the attorney general at the gold dome.
Esteves said, “I’ll tell you, aside from emails and phone calls, showing up in person actually goes a long way.”
The panel also discussed other proposals Allen had supported when he was representing the area that would increase emissions monitoring requirements and punitive fines. Allen was successful in getting one ethylene oxide bill, Senate Bill 426, passed in 2020 and signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp.
It requires manufacturers that use ethylene oxide to report any waste spills or gas releases to the state Environmental Protection Division within 24 hours, and the EPD must post the information on the agency’s website.
During the town hall, the group discussed other proposed legislation that would give local jurisdictions such as Cobb County funds to do their own air monitoring.
A joint report from WebMD and Georgia Health News in July 2019 revealed the Environmental Protection Agency had identified two census tracts near the Smyrna facility with elevated health risks from airborne toxins.
Air quality testing near the Smyrna plant found levels of ethylene oxide up to 395 times higher than what federal regulators deem acceptable.
News of this report triggered public outrage. Hundreds of residents and workers sued the firm for their alleged exposure to the toxins. Others have since filed lawsuits arguing the public health concerns damaged their home values.
Esteves shared the same concern as others as he told participants during the town hall that he and his family live just 1.5 miles away from the plant. “Since then, what Sterigenics has said is that they have voluntarily installed enhancements to the emission control systems in 2019,” said Esteves. “And that in 2020, the EPD completed a permit process related to emission control and enhancements, and that the new permit required them to significantly beef up their controls. And that they are operating the most advanced emission controls system at any sterilization facility anywhere in the world.”
Esteves also discussed questions submitted by viewers of the town hall, including people who asked how the plant could be shut down entirely. Esteves said unless state or federal authorities “found a violation, that would warrant it being shut down,” that would be a tall order.
“So there’s very little that can be done at this point, from residents, from lawmakers, at any level, without there being an affirmative violation, and it would likely take more than one violation,” said Esteves as he pointed to a recent federal case where a judge ruled that Cobb County improperly ordered the plant to close temporarily, by requiring it to obtain a new certificate of occupancy.
Allen suggested Willowbrook, Illinois as the model to follow in getting the plant shut down as they were able to get the Sterigenics plant permanently closed in that community. Said Allen, “If you follow the pattern, as long as you regulate them, they will leave and find somewhere else to go that will not regulate them.”
Civil litigation was also suggested as an effective tool by Hertz, who is representing plaintiffs suing Sterigenics. He referenced a case with the Illinois plant where a woman was awarded $363 million in a verdict. Richardson suggested that citizens monitor new regulator changes that may be coming from the EPA.
Esteves concluded the meeting with a promise to hold another town hall on the subject. Included in the next meeting will be participation from the state Environmental Protection Division and Sterigenics, along with the community and local groups opposing the plant.
Esteves said, “Residents are ensuring that the EPD and the administration, the governor and the department, know that this is at the top of people’s minds, because if we stay quiet, they won’t do anything to necessarily address it.”