State Sen. Jen Jordan (D-Atlanta) and two Cobb County residents are suing to toss out a state consent order on new emissions controls at the controversial Sterigenics facility, demanding a broader and stricter agreement created with public input.
Sterigenics, which uses the possibly cancer-causing gas ethylene oxide at a Smyrna facility, is embroiled in controversy over emissions and the state Environmental Protection Division’s lack of public notice about a federal estimate of increased cancer risks in the area. On Aug. 7, Sterigenics entered into a consent order with EPD to install more emission control equipment in the facility.
The lawsuit was filed in Fulton County Superior Court on Sept. 6, the same day Sterigenics announced the emissions controls will be installed sooner than expected. Jordan and Cale Conley, the attorney for the petitioners who filed it, say that tearing up the order would not halt the new emissions controls, but would require public input on a new consent order that could be stricter.
Conley said in a phone interview that any consent order needs “daylight” and input from “real people like the petitioners, or the scientific community.”
“Basically, the EPD has whiffed on this, to this point,” he said. “To me, this is a public calling-out or wake-up call to [say], ‘Let’s do it right this time.’”
An EPD spokesperson said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. Sterigenics did not immediately respond to a request for comment. For a full copy of the petition, click here.
In a press release, Jordan contrasted the local situation with a similar controversy over ethylene oxide emissions at a Sterigenics facility in Illinois. That facility, in an Illinois village called Willowbrook, was shuttered earlier this year by the state following detection of high ethylene oxide emissions, and imposed a wide-ranging consent order involving air quality and other measures. That agreement led a judge to rule on Sept. 6 that the facility to reopen in the future. More than 30 residents from an area around the Illinois facility are now suing Sterigenics, alleging cancer and cover-ups, while the company asserts it followed the rules and did not hide any information.
“If members of our community had been allowed to be heard, what EPD and Sterigenics would have agreed to would have looked very different,” Jordan said in the press release. “…The citizens of Georgia are entitled to just as much protection from a known carcinogen as the citizens of Illinois.”
In the lawsuit, Jordan is petitioning both as an individual and on behalf of her constituents in the state Senate’s District 6, which includes large sections of Cobb, Buckhead and Sandy Springs.
The other petitioners are two residents of a 101-household Cobb subdivision near the facility that is said to have “20 or more” residents who have been diagnosed with cancer in “recent years.” Petitioner Todd Smith has lymphoma, and petitioner Kim Baynes’ husband died last year from leukemia, according to the lawsuit.
The actual air quality around the facility is unknown. Testing is underway, commissioned by Cobb and the cities of Smyrna and Atlanta.
Conley criticized the EPD lack of public notice about the Sterigenics emissions, which were revealed not by the watchdog agency, but rather by media outlets WebMD and Georgia Health News. He said the EPD’s lack of action has been “like the police are sitting there in the parking lot of a convenience store eating doughnuts while it’s getting robbed.”
As for the current consent order, Conley said the petitioners’ concern is that Sterigenics will view that as its only responsibility and forego further improvements. And the emission controls in that consent order were created without any air quality tests.
“I give my kid a math problem, they don’t write the solution first and hand it in. You study the problem first,” Conley said. “I would love to ask this question in a public hearing. How do you know how to solve a problem you haven’t tested for? In what world is that science?”
Conley is representing the petitioners pro bono, and the case is personal for him as well. He grew up near the facility and continues to live in the area, as well as working in an office nearby in Buckhead. “My world is in this area,” he said.
Conley said he has been contacted by many potential clients about the Sterigenics issue, some saying they have cancer and others concerned they may develop it. He likened the situation to the Illinois lawsuits.
“We may out-Willowbrook Willowbrook,” Conley said, adding, “I’m not going to quit until this place is shut down, period.”