NEWTON COUNTY, Ga. - Gov. Brian Kemp plans on spearheading a series of public meetings this month to connect government agencies and residents in two metro Atlanta counties as they grapple with revelations tied to the unknown release of carcinogenic toxins from local medical plants.
On Thursday, Kemp's office confirmed it is working with the EPA, CDC and Georgia Department of Public Health to host question and answer sessions about the medical sterilization facilities with neighbors in Cobb and Newton counties.
Smyrna is home to the Sterigenics plant. Covington is home to the B.D. Bard plant. The facilities were highlighted in a recent WebMD investigation, revealing they were at one point responsible for the high-level release of ethylene oxide.
The companies began working with the Georgia EPD for emissions testing in 2014, but a report on previous levels was not issued by the EPA until 2018.
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All the agencies say the plants have fallen within federal emissions regulations in recent years, lowering the EO release over time.
Earlier this week, the president of Sterigenics met with Cobb neighbors and lawmakers in a packed gym at Campbell Middle School.
On Friday, Newton County Chairman Marcello Banes and Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston were on a conference call with the EPA, EPD and Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
"EPA's Deputy Director for the South Eastern Region, Ken Mitchell, explained that the nationwide National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) study conducted in 2014, which formed the basis of recent news reports, was based upon historical, and not current, emissions data," a press release read. "The NATA was designed to identify areas across the nation which, based upon historic ethylene oxide emissions data, showed the potential for elevated cancer risks."
"For the 30014 zip code, the NATA estimated the potential for 214 cancer cases per 1,000,000 people chronically exposed to ethylene oxide," it continued, reiterating that a recent study showed ethylene chloride levels were much lower than they were in 2014.
Kemp's office, which noted many of its staff members live close to the facilities in question,
says it's been in contact with local leaders and state lawmakers for daily updates.
The EPD plans to meet with Sterigenics' CEO on Friday and is asking the EPA to commit to an Aug. 20 community meeting in Covington.
Sen. David Perdue's and Rep. Lucy McBath's offices are also in contact with the EPA and EPD.
"We will work around the clock to address this situation and keep Georgia families safe," said the governor's spokeswoman, Candice Broce, in part of a statement.
The most recent solution has involved both the Sterigenics and Bard plants' submission of state permits to further their emissions reduction.
A spokesman for the Bard plant told Channel 2 Action News it would provide updates to assist with public information and transparency via the website http://etosafety.bd.com. The plant reiterated it is working with local and state officials.
"We simply would not operate a facility that we do not feel is safe for the employees and neighboring residential areas," part of a statement read.
"That's a problem," said Covington resident Toby Sammons regarding all the information about historic and current EO levels. "We should have been notified, and seems to me they should have found this out a lot earlier."
COMMUNITY ORGANIZES IN COVINGTON
On Thursday night, about 200 people packed a fellowship hall at Covington's Calvary Baptist Church, eager to learn more about ethylene oxide and what they could do to have their voices heard as leaders met with federal and state agencies.
Hours earlier, the 59-year-old Sammons sat in his mother's front yard and reflected on playing in the fields across the street. Those fields are on the Bard plant property.
"I've been here my whole life, so I'm really beginning to worry about this," Sammons told Channel 2 investigative reporter Nicole Carr. "There's numerous, numerous cancer in this area that I can probably off the top of my head think of between eight and 10 I can tell you real quick."
The neighborhood was full of pink flyers stapled to trees, labeling it a "cancer cluster" and encouraging neighbors to get to Calvary Baptist Church that evening.
"We livin' in this place and don't know nothin' about it," said another neighbor, C.J. Morris. "Just keep it hidden and it ain't right."
Ahead of the meeting, one of its organizers said his fight would be in the courtroom but he wanted to provide a gathering for his own neighbors at Calvary.
"We haven't had a seat at the table to really be able to speak up and say, ‘Hey, this is what we want for our community,'" said attorney Michael Geoffroy.
Geoffroy pushed back against the plants' guarantee that they're within federal regulations.
"We know that if we grade our own papers, we all make A's," Geoffroy said. "So we don't have a lot of trust in those numbers and what they all mean, and they're all based on those self-audited numbers."
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