EPA may have been blocked from sending warnings about plant emitting cancer causing air

COBB COUNTY, Ga. — A newly-released federal report concludes political interference blocked and delayed the Environmental Protection Agency from warning the public of cancer risks tied to a now-shuttered Illinois medical sterilization plant.

The report and plant practices are raising new questions amongst lawmakers and activists who have been fighting the operations here in Georgia since 2019.

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At the same time, the state denies any federal interference or pressure has impacted its decisions tied to Georgia operations and the public release of data on the cancer-causing gas, ethylene oxide.

On Friday, the EPA’s Inspector General released a report centered around the medical sterilization plant, Sterigenics. An investigation concluded Bill Wehrum, a lobbyist, attorney and Trump-appointed lead over the EPA’s air and radiation office, directed agency investigators “not to release monitoring results to the public.”

The report concludes Wehrum was behind blocking 2018 efforts to publicize ETO gas data linked to the Chicago-area Sterigenics facility.

Wehrum would resign in 2019 amid ethics violations concerns that he, as an attorney, was representing the some of the same environmental stakeholders he was appointed to regulate. In the same year, Illinois environmental officials banned Sterigenics from using ethylene oxide. It led the plant to shut down.

In July 2019 a WebMD investigation revealed Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division had been warned of heightened ETO cancer risks through EPA data in 2017 and 2018, but both the Deal and Kemp administrations said they’d learned of the potential risks through the news reporting and its data released that year.

Gov. Brian Kemp would go on to launch a series of state investigations into the operations, that would eventually be mandated by the state to lower its ethylene oxide emissions.

[READ: Local sterilization plants released dangerous, cancer-causing toxins, report shows]

“That timeline has always made us question ‘Why,’ and we got our answer,” said Janet Rau.

Rau heads the Stop Sterigenics Georgia groups, a grassroots organization of activists and people living and working around the plant operations. She said on Monday that a representative of the group was attending a pre-planned meeting with the state EPD, as the group looks to tackle the issue again in a public forum this week.

“Honestly, I cried. I cried when I first heard the news,” Rau said, referring to Friday’s IG report. “And then I started making phone calls.”

State representative and Lt. Governor candidate Erick Allen represents the Cobb district where Sterigenics operates. He’s introduced a handful of legislation aimed at regulating ETO emissions. There’s been bipartisan movement in one, but Allen said he couldn’t get a hearing on three other measures.

The IG report revelations raise concerns about Georgia’s transparency in data reporting and testing, as well, the Democratic lawmaker said.

“It kind of shifts the narrative to what we’ve always talked about with the Trump Administration as the Big Lie,” Allen said. “Now we’ve really gotta look at all the Big Lies. It’s plural.”

“I encourage all of my colleagues in the House, in the Senate, the Governor, the EPD…to jump on this issue to figure out what we need to do in Georgia to solve this issue,” Allen continued.

[RELATED: Homeowners living near Sterigenics plant say their property values have fallen]

In a statement Monday, a spokesperson for the state EPD wrote “There was no interference or pressure from US EPA on conducting or completing the State’s modeling study nor on EPD’s decision to seek additional emission reductions.”

The statement pointed to a timeline in which the state released EPA data in August of 2018, before launching census track emissions study that concluded in June 2019. The agency did not determine emissions risks were as high as federal warnings, but went on to enact emissions controls at both BD Bard and Sterigenics.

The statement, which pointed out state environmental officials had not reviewed the IG report, did not address why governors Deal and Kemp were unaware of the EPA warnings before the 2019 news report. Kemp would go on to launch a series of investigations into the emissions and impacts near the Cobb County plant along Atlanta Road, and the Bard plant in Covington.

A spokesperson for the Governor Kemp’s office deferred comment about the IG report to the state EPD. Sterigenics declined to comment on the IG report Monday, and a spokesperson for BD Bard also declined to comment on the report because it did not relate to Georgia.

The fallout from the lack of earlier public knowledge about the emissions and effects led to a series of lawsuits on behalf of Georgia employees, cancer survivors, and estates of those who lived around both Sterigenics and BD Bard, a medical sterilization plant in Covington that releases the same gas. Property owners in high-risk EPA census track data from previous years have also filed lawsuits amid plummeting property values.

Sterigenics would voluntarily shutter operations in the fall of 2019 to install emissions controls. Cobb County officials would shut it down  again in  August of 2020 amid questions about whether it was functioning under a legitimate operating permit.”

But in March of 2020, at the urging of HHS officials who’d contacted Kemp’s office, the county allowed the plant to re-open. HHS officials argued a need for the plant to sterilize PPE at the start of the pandemic, as Sterigenics sued the county for shutting it down. The company complained of politically-driven motives keeping it from operating.

[RELATED: Sterigenics sues Cobb County; HHS asks for governor’s help]

Allen and Rau will moderate a session about the legal next steps on Thursday evening. The virtual session was planned before the IG report release, but will now address public questions tied to it.

“Could we have done something differently if we’d known sooner?” Rau asked.

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