COBB COUNTY, Ga. (CBS46) -- Plans to test a new emission control system at Cobb County’s Sterigenics plant are on hold after a last-minute appeal by state law maker, Erick Allen (D-Smyrna).
Allen was alerted to the planned test earlier this week by local advocacy group Stop Sterigenics Georgia. Members of that group were tipped off to a letter Sterigenics had sent to the Georgia Enviornmental Protection Division (EPD) February 14th that notified the state of the new emission control system and their intention to test it (per EPD requirements) on Thursday, February 20th.
“Our first call was to Representative Allen because we knew that he is so highly engaged in this and could get other people to answer the phone,” said Janet Rau of Stop Sterigenics Georgia.
The new information raised a red flag for Allen and others as Sterigenics had its construction permit pulled by the county more than five months ago and would be unable to lawfully work on a new emission control system without it.
“How would they be testing a system unless it’s complete? And how could it be complete unless they had violated the permit?” asked Allen.
Allen took his concerns to the Georgia EPD on Wednesday to request more information on what led up to the scheduled test and to ask the agency to postpone it until it can be sure Sterigenics was not in violation of any Cobb County mandates.
Representative Allen’s request worked, and the EPD canceled the scheduled test. However, the questions remained, why weren’t state lawmakers, residents, or even the Governor’s Office informed of the planned tests, and who ultimately approved them?
According to Sterigenics… Cobb County gave the approval.
But when Stop Sterigenics members reached out to Cobb County commissioners, several of them indicated they too, were unaware of the tests that were scheduled to take place in just a couple of days.
Commissioner Bob Ott released the following in a statement on Wednesday:
“I found out late last night about the proposed testing by Sterigenics. I immediately reached out to the Governor’s office to get EPD to stop this testing and force Sterigenics to comply with county rules and codes. Although the testing involves a test of the negative pressure system of the facility and is not using any ethylene oxide, it is unacceptable for Sterigenics to proceed without approval or permits from the county and the state.
Through the efforts of the governor’s office and with coordination of Ga EPD the testing has been canceled pending Sterigenics obtaining the necessary permit and inspections of the negative pressure system. I will continue to keep you informed of the situation as it progresses.”
On her social media account Wednesday night, Commissioner Lisa Cupid, posted (in part):
“I have received multiple inquiries regarding Sterigenics testing to occur Thursday. I was not aware until I received constituent correspondence this evening.”
And according to the County’s own website, Cobb Chairman Mike Boyce expressed frustration with the situation, reiterating that residents need to be notified farther in advance before any action at the plant takes place.
However, when CBS46 reached out to Cobb County Spokesperson, Ross Cavit for clarification, Cavit confirmed that despite statements indicating otherwise, approval for this test did, in fact, come from the County.
“The County Manager, after meeting with the company [Sterigenics] and consulting with the EPD, sent the state an email allowing the test to proceed, knowing the test did not require the use of Ethylene Oxide,” wrote Cavit.
The County Manager, Rob Hosack met with Sterigenics on January 24th. CBS46 did not receive a response back with regard to why Hosack did not notify Cobb County Commissioners, state lawmakers, or residents, of his decision to sign-off on the testing.
Concern over the Sterigenics plant has been growing since last summer, when a joint report from WebMD and Georgia Health News identified three metro Atlanta census tracks that have an increased risk of cancer from air pollution, due to ethylene oxide. Sterigenics uses ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment and has been emitting the cancer-causing gas into the air for decades.
Cobb County forced the facility to temporarily shut down operations in October of last year, after county officials noticed a discrepancy with the facility’s Certificate of Occupancy. The also pulled the company’s construction permit to prevent any further modifications to the plant until the issue could be resolved.
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Why the County Manager would sign off on the testing of a project that may have required a permit, is still unclear. “The conditions hadn’t been met, so what was the thinking? Why was that permission given and if it was given mistakenly, then let’s own up to that and let’s say it and fix the problem so that kind of mistake doesn’t happen again, this is too important,” said Rau.
Ultimately, Rau says she’s just glad the test got scrapped in time, but the lack of communication and transparency, from her own local governments, is getting old. “How did we get here again?
How did this happen again?! There’s such a level of frustration, that’s it’s hard to take,” she said.
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EXCLUSIVE: In the meantime, CBS46 has also learned Sterigenics may be in violation of another Cobb County mandate. According to multiple sources, Sterigenics is storing significant amounts of ethylene oxide on site, despite repeated requests from the County to remove it.
Rau says she believes Sterigenics is threatening the County with lawsuits, and perhaps that is why these violations are not being addressed more aggressively. She says her group is keeping a very watchful eye on all of it, and will mobilize quickly, if necessary.
“Sterigenics has shown time and time again they’re not going to do anything voluntarily and they’re not going to follow the rules,” said Rau. “And this most recent situation tells me there’s bad communication inside Cobb County.”
Cobb County officials say they will continue to work with a third-party consultant to evaluate the Sterigenics facility, and to see what changes might be necessary to bring it up to a “High Hazard Occupancy” status, as opposed to the lower occupancy status it previously held. County officials are adamant they will not allow Sterigenics to re-open until the occupancy issue is resolved and adequate safety codes are met.
Stay with CBS46 for updates on this developing story.