Sterigenics sues Cobb County; HHS asks for governor’s help

A medical sterilization plant has filed a federal lawsuit against Cobb County, arguing they've been illegally shut down and need to open during the coronavirus pandemic.

COBB COUNTY, Ga. — A medical sterilization plant has filed a federal lawsuit against Cobb County, arguing they’ve been illegally shut down and need to open during the coronavirus pandemic.

It comes as communication from the highest levels of the federal government filter through Gov. Brian Kemp’s office, pushing for his assistance in convincing Cobb leaders to agree to a permanent re-opening.

Sterigenics filed the lawsuit on Monday. In the complaint, the plant claims the county is “manufacturing a sham claim” that Sterigenics needs a new certificate of occupancy. It accuses the county of keeping them shut down for political purposes and “in response to activists’ unfounded environmental claims."

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The facility off Atlanta Road has been closed since August, as an ongoing investigation into the proper occupancy permitting continues.

Since the summer, Sterigenics has installed equipment to lower the emissions of ethylene oxide, a carcinogenic gas used in its medical equipment sterilization process.

The levels of that gas release have prompted community outcry, as opponents say they believe the facility is responsible for a pattern of health issues in the immediate area surrounding the plant.

Janet Rau, the president of the grassroots campaign Stop Sterigenics spoke to Channel 2 last week.

“The community around the facility is already hurting,” Rau said. “There’s a lot of people in the area with cancer that they believe is a direct effect of the ethylene oxide that they’ve been exposed to.”

Last week, Cobb County Commission chairman Mike Boyce signed an order to temporarily re-open the facility.

It came at the urging of the FDA, which wrote into the governor’s office that the coronavirus pandemic highlighted the need for the facility to fully re-open in order to sterilize PPE gear for first responders.

It echoed an argument it made last fall, warning the plant closure would have an adverse effect on critical supplies in Georgia.

The county, which has an ongoing third-party investigation into the facility’s occupancy permit, said it was awaiting clearance from the state EPD to resume operations at Sterigenics after it successfully completed air pressure tests.

The temporary order allows for minimal ethylene oxide release in order to sterilize medical equipment for a 21-day period. That time period is within the county’s own emergency declaration for COVID-19, which ends in mid-April.

The FDA said the facility accounts for 4% of ethylene oxide sterilization in the U.S. A spokesperson said other facilities had been asked to resume normal operation amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The spokesperson did not directly answer a request from Channel 2 about which other facilities were in the same position.

In part of their statement Monday, Sterigenics argued that they’ve met county demands over the past six months, and said officials had no authority to keep them close.

“Sterigenics has met the demands of public officials by further enhancing a state-of-the-art facility to deliver even higher levels of safety,” the statement read. “Limited operations have begun at the facility to sterilize personal protective equipment previously validated for sterilization at the facility under the recently issued County Emergency Order, which expires April 15. Unfortunately, legal action is now necessary to put an end to the County’s baseless and politically motivated claims and allow the facility to be re-opened on permanent basis for full operation to meet the urgent needs facing health care workers and patients.”

The morning after Cobb County issued its order on the facility, an e-mail from HHS was sent to Gov. Kemp’s office, warning of national implications should the plant remain closed.

“We hope you will use whatever communication channels you have to encourage the county to expand the decree to full production of all medical items and extend it until the nation’s threat and need is over, the e-mail reads. “Conversations on next steps from the Federal Government are occurring at the highest levels, should the situation not change.”

On Monday, Kemp spokeswoman Candice Broce said she forwarded the e-mail to Cobb as a courtesy, noting they work with officials on a number of issues at any given time.

Boyce declined to comment on the pending litigation , but said he stands by his order on Sterigenics.

State Rep. Erick Allen (D-Smyrna) issued a statement saying the lawsuit shows a ”disingenuous narrative” of the FDA letter and pressure by the governor, given the fact that Boyce allowed the facility to re-open for PPE sterilization purposes.

“I believe, and it’s now proven, that Sterigenics’ main goal all along has been to seize on the fear around the pandemic to force the county into allowing them to operate,” Allen said.

“Earlier in the week they took out Facebook ads to apply public pressure and now they sue the county to fully resume operations,” it continues. “This shows that the argument from the company, the FDA and Governor Kemp were baseless.”

Cobb County Chairman Mike Boyce signed an emergency order Wednesday, authorizing the Sterigenics plant to operate on a ?limited contingency basis.?