COBB COUNTY, Ga. - Officials at one local medical sterilization plant told lawmakers they will install technology to reduce toxic emissions after an explosive report reveals it’s released cancer-causing chemicals for years without residents’ knowledge.
The Sterigenics plant off Atlanta Road is one of two plants highlighted in a recent WebMD investigation by reporters Brenda Goodman and Andy Miller.
The pair discovered the plant, which has a Smyrna address, and the BD Bard plant in Covington have released the chemical ethylene oxide, affecting three census tracts bordering Buckhead, Vinings, Smyrna and Covington neighborhood.
The chemical poses elevated cancer risks over a lifetime.
Goodman had been researching the issue for about year before last week’s report was released. It was prompted an investigation she’d read in the Chicago Tribune.
“Once I realized we had some medical sterilization plants here and we had some dark blue spots in Georgia on the EPA’s map -- we had spots that had some elevated cancer risks from the chemical -- I decided to file an open records request,” Goodman said.
Her records request was submitted to the Georgia Environmental Protection Department, where Goodman and Miller discovered data has been studied since 2014.
“I think it was fair to say we were stunned they were actively discussing it and working on it,” Goodman said.
“We thought it was important to educate consumers and leaders, and not only about the cancer risks in these communities but what ethylene oxide does,” Miller said.
A spokeswoman for the state EPD explained that the agency had been working with the plants to study the data and the chemical's effects and to reduce emissions. In the case of the Sterigenics plant, that had been done by 90%.
Channel 2 investigative reporter Nicole Carr was with state Sen. Jen Jordan on Tuesday soon after Jordan spoke with the president of Sterigenics.
The conversation ended with a promise to move toward further reducing emissions by installing technology similar to that at an Illinois plant.
The plant’s plans will be submitted to the Environmental Protection Department within seven to 14 days. They require approval and a 12-week installation period.
“This is a good turn of events,” Jordan told Carr. “You don’t see businesses necessarily respond so quickly, and so my guess is that they’ve learned a lot from the situation down in Illinois, and I think they really want to be a good actor here, at least I’m hopeful.”
On Wednesday, the first Cobb neighborhood meetings on the issue took place. Carr also met a Covington attorney in attendance, and he said potential clients and residents there are organizing their own town halls.
Smyrna resident Victoria Nahum said she’s been contacting her local lawmakers. She lives about six miles from the Sterigenics plant, but just outside of the census tract identified as an affected area.
She’s not certain she and her husband have not been affected considering the Covington residents were impacted within a 15-mile radius of the plant.
“This is home," she said. “This is where we raise our children and grandchildren, and there’s no place like home. People want to feel safe.”
Smyrna city leaders say they are also gathering more information, but pointed out challenges in jurisdictional control as the Sterigenics plant has a Smyrna address but is technically outside city limits.
County leaders are also keeping in touch with residents via social media updates as federal and state lawmakers begin their probes.
Nahum, who said a lack of notification was one of the most jarring parts of the newly released report, added she wants concrete results from Sterigenics’ promise to significantly reduce emissions.
“While I appreciate they’re working on it, they need to work on it to make it completely right not just finagle it a little here and a little there to make something feel better,” Nahum said.
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