COBB COUNTY, Ga. - Smyrna residents got their first chance to ask representatives of a medical sterilization plant about the release of carcinogenic toxins.
That chance came Tuesday evening during a community meeting at Campbell Middle School in Smyrna, where people from the Sterigenics plant, state lawmakers and local leaders talked about what’s been happening in their backyards for years.
A recent WebMD investigation revealed the Sterigenics plant and a similar one in Covington have been releasing high levels of ethylene oxide for years.
The state Environmental Protection Department had been working with the plants since 2014 to monitor the cancer-causing toxin release, but reported findings were not released until 2018.
The emissions fell within state guidelines that are now being questioned by lawmakers learning of the emissions and a similar controversy outside Chicago.
Last week, the president of Sterigenics, Phil MacNabb, promised to submit a plan to lower emissions.
State Rep. Erick Allen told Channel 2's Nicole Carr that one focus moving forward is to ensure the emissions testing is transparent, suggesting the state do its own testing rather than rely on Sterigenics’ results as the EPD has done for years.
“How do we make sure that what they commit to is actually what’s being done?” he asked. “That comes in the way of independent testing. Right now, they’re self-reporting.”
Allen is among a group of state and local leaders who have recently met with the Environmental Protection Agency, EPD and Sterigenics executives.
Ahead of Tuesday’s community meeting, Allen told Carr the EPA and Georgia EPD have agreed to coordinate public meetings in the coming weeks. Lawmakers’ roles will revolve around accountability.
“If this plant is still going to operate, which there’s question about whether or not they should even operate … If they are going to operate, they’re going to operate in a transparent and safe manner that everyone is communicating about,” Allen said. “Like I said right now, the lack of communication is what’s most disturbing.”
Kevin Verwane works in an industrial complex across from Sterigenics. He said he and his colleagues have always wondered about the emissions.
“It looks like a cloud-maker, so that’s how we notice it, and we usually get here about 8:50 in the morning. It’s usually full blast, but as of late, since I seen that little investigation, it’s kinda simmered down a little bit,” he told Carr.
“I don’t physically smell it, but I see it,” Verwane continued. “When I heard the lady (in the report) explain about the cancer, a lightbulb went off in my head.”
On Tuesday night, MacNabb took center stage inside Campbell Middle School, where he squared off against hundreds of Smyrna residents who didn’t pull any punches, firing off tough questions and attacking the company's plant, which is just off Atlanta Road.
“I want you to know that your trust is totally broken because you’re reacting now,” resident Dustin Caldwell said.
“I know that because this is a surprise, there’s a lot of feeling of mistrust, and I apologize. We should’ve gotten out ahead of this a while ago,” MacNabb said.
MacNabb spent nearly two hours answering questions and fighting back against claims.
“We are always endeavoring and shown a history of continuous improvement and getting well below the regulatory limits," he said. "We will continue to do that to make sure the employees are safe, the community is safe and the patients are safe.”
“I’m concerned about my housing value, and I just visited my friend with cancer who lived about 2 miles from the plant. Who knows if that’s related?” resident Leigh Anne Rehkopf said.
Cobb County Commissioner Bob Ott said the county has no ability to shut down the plant while the city of Smyrna does its own independent testing.
Sterigenics officials said the company is well within the EPA's guidelines and standards.
Covington residents are preparing for a similar community meeting regarding the BD Bard medical plant. It’s scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday at the Calvary Baptist Church off Mill Street Northeast.
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