'Cancer cluster' cover-up?

EPA, Rauner knew of heightened cancer risk at Sterigenics facility in Willowbrook for eight months before informing public

The Sterigenics company in Willowbrook has been releasing the carcinogen ethylene oxide into the air for decades. (One Illinois/Zachary Sigelko)

The Sterigenics company in Willowbrook has been releasing the carcinogen ethylene oxide into the air for decades. (One Illinois/Zachary Sigelko)

By Ted Cox

The state and federal Environmental Protection Agency knew for eight months that the Sterigenics firm in Willowbrook was causing a “cancer cluster” in the southwest Chicago suburbs before informing the public, and the Illinois EPA is so understaffed it can’t supply an expert to get the firm shut down, according to Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

Madigan’s office issued a statement Friday saying: “The Rauner administration hid information on the increased risks from the Sterigenics plant for over eight months. We then had to fight with IEPA to get access to needed information. We still do not have an expert from IEPA who can testify in court and prove that Sterigenics should be immediately shut down. Nonetheless, we are moving as quickly as possible to finalize legal action.”

That came as the Chicago Tribune was reporting that it had obtained a letter showing that the U.S. EPA informed the IEPA of the elevated cancer risk in the area surrounding the Willowbrook Sterigenics facility late last year.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t until August that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued an “Evaluation of Potential Health Impacts from Ethylene Oxide Emissions” revealing the heightened cancer risk to the public. Sterigenics uses ethylene oxide to sterilize equipment, and according to the federal report it was releasing the carcinogen into the air at its Willbrook site for decades.

Between the time the U.S. EPA first informed its Illinois counterpart of the elevated cancer risk and the release of the report in August, according to the Tribune: “The Illinois EPA responded to the report by quietly giving Sterigenics a permit to voluntarily install new pollution-control equipment, making it more difficult for authorities to pursue legal action against the company unless it can be shown the fix has failed to eliminate health risks from ethylene oxide pollution.”

Gov. Bruce Rauner owned a piece of Sterigenics through investments, but claimed in debates with his Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker that he had divested. The Tribune reported, however, that Rauner officials, employed by both the state and with his political arm, “have not produced documents showing the transaction took place.”

That’s pertinent, in that not only did the IEPA delay informing the public of the “cancer cluster,” but the agency dragged its feet on supplying emissions data to Madigan’s office, even after her staffers filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain them in August when the federal report was released. The Tribune pointed out that, at that time, Rauner declared, “This is not an emergency.”

In October, as local residents were rallying outside the Thompson Center where Rauner’s Chicago offices are located to demand answers, Rauner’s IEPA was asking Madigan to step in and use her authority to close down Sterigenics.

As Madigan pointed out Friday, it hasn’t been able to proceed with that legal action because the IEPA hasn’t supplied an expert to testify. That’s not surprising, in that sources say Rauner has “gutted” the IEPA and left it understaffed. That has left Madigan’s office to take on issues the IEPA should be policing itself.

The Governor’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.

Rauner and President Trump have both boasted of cutting regulations on businesses, and Trump made that claim again just Saturday in his campaign rally at Southern Illinois Airport. But the Sterigenics scandal shows the worst-case scenario of what deregulation — or just ignoring current regulations — can lead to, and the sterilization firm continues to operate in Willowbrook.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth issued a statement Friday saying, “Each day, it seems that the chemical and ethical clouds surrounding Sterigenics continue to grow darker, and today’s investigation showing that both the Trump and Rauner administrations sought to hide data that could save lives in and around Willowbrook is the most troubling we’ve seen yet.”

Citing “similar behavior” minimizing the continuing Legionnaires’ disease crisis that has taken the lives of at least 14 people at the Illinois Veterans Home Quincy, Illinois’s junior senator added, “It’s also becoming more and more apparent that the Rauner administration habitually puts public relations above the health and well-being of the people of Illinois.” She called that “unacceptable” and “indefensible.”

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin weighed in as well. Calling it “a downright disgrace,” he said, “Once again, the Rauner and Trump administrations prioritized public relations over a serious public health hazard.”

Durbin called for the state and federal EPA to “finally step up its monitoring of this facility and be fully transparent with the public about the information they have about Sterigenics. Additionally, we need more emissions testing at this plant — something I’ve asked the EPA for repeatedly — (and) a timeline for the EPA to set new health-based standards.”

Local residents told their stories of being afflicted with various health woes due to ethylene oxide exposure on Friday at a General Assembly committee meeting held in Chicago.