COBB COUNTY, Ga. — Some people fighting a local medical cleaning plants that use a cancer-causing gas to clean equipment learned they may not see a day in court until 2023.
Channel 2 investigative reporter Nicole Carr learned that information from lawyers handling the cases.
They were speaking virtually for concerned neighbors who were able to type their questions in a chat and referencing recent conferences with judges who would handle the cases saying that two-year timeline may seem like a stretch, but given where the courts are during the pandemic and given the breadth of these cases, it’s an encouraging timeline.
One big question is the statute of limitations in filing lawsuits. When is too late to claim you were affected?
Attorneys are saying that would be by this summer, exactly two years after a news investigation launched one of the biggest environmental controversies in the state.
“We’re going to hold their feet to the fire. We’re going to hold them accountable-up to taking them to a jury here in Cobb County of 12 strangers and we’re going to ask them to solve this problem-and we’re going to say ‘here’s what they’ve done. Do what’s right. Do what’s fair,” said attorney Drew Asby.
Attorneys behind cancer survivors, estates and others impacted by the emissions from medical sterilization plants in Newton and Cobb counties, say the first cases against the companies could go to trial by spring of 2023.
The lawsuits filed following a 2019 WebMD investigation revealing Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division had been warned of high-level ethylene oxide emissions in specific census tracts from the BD Bard and Sterigenics plants through 2017 and 2018 EPA data.
- Sterilization plant meets with Smyrna residents over toxin release
- Local sterilization plants released dangerous, cancer-causing toxins, report shows
- Lawsuit aimed at state’s handling of controversial plant
- Cobb County shuts down Sterigenics indefinitely
- Sterigenics sues Cobb County; HHS asks for governor’s help
The federal government at the time, confirming ETO cancer risks.
Both the Deal and Kemp administrations said they’d learned of it through the reporting and testing data made public that year.
Neighbors demanded more information about why the state hadn’t re-published or warned of federal data earlier than the summer of 2019.
That’s when they completed their own modeling, saying it did not suggest the risks were as high as laid out by the EPA, but the state EPD still went on to mandate lower level emissions at the plants.
In the Sterigenics case, a string of permitting questions and gas leaks led to two separate shut downs-one voluntary as the company worked on testing emissions, another mandated in the fall of 2019 — by Cobb County officials.
Last spring, HHS officials urged the governor and cobb officials to re-open the plant so it could help sterilize PPE.
It remains open today during the health emergency—amid delayed legal fights with the county-
“Honestly, I cried. I cried when I first heard the news. And then I started making phone calls,” said Janet Rau, with Stop Sterigenics GA.
This week we heard even more concern from neighbors and lawmakers after the EPA published its inspector general report saying political interference delayed the EPA from warning Illinois neighbors of the ETO emissions risks.
It concludes Bill Wehrum, the former Trump appointed lead over the EPA’s air and radiation office, directed agency investigators “not to release monitoring results to the public,” blocking 2018 efforts to publicize the data linked to the facility.
Wehrum would resign in 2019 amid ethics violations concerns that he was as an attorney representing some of the same environmental stakeholders he was appointed to regulate.
Sterigenics declined to comment on the IG report.
And while the state EPD this week denies any political interference played a role in their decisions regulating the local plant and dealing with the public, it raises new questions in the community.
“How would that impact the litigation and the situation here in Cobb County?” state Rep. Erick Allen asked attorney Michael Geoffrey.
“I do think that it’s another piece of evidence that’s going to have an impact on it, and I think the real impact for us is ‘how many more are out there?’ How many more of these situations where the government didn’t respond, where the industry buried things, are we going to find?” Geoffrey said.
On top of the lawsuits filed over the air in the area, people who live near the plant have also filed suit over devaluation of property.
Employees of Sterigenics have also come forward to sue over exposure in the plant. Sterigenics has also sued Cobb County over the shutdown.