Rauner and the public's right to know

State withheld information on health crises at Sterigenics and Quincy Veterans Home

 Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration has withheld critical health information on the Sterigenics facilities in Willowbrook and the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration has withheld critical health information on the Sterigenics facilities in Willowbrook and the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

An old story about the state mishandling a health crisis resurfaced alongside a new one this week, but they shared a common pattern.

Gov. Rauner will not address those uncomfortable health issues, no matter the potential impact on public health, until absolutely compelled to politically.

The new story concerned Sterigenics, a sterilization company with a pair of facilities in Willowbrook. In August, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a report stating that “an elevated cancer risk exists for residents and off-site workers in the Willowbrook community surrounding the Sterigenics facility. These elevated risks present a public health hazard to these populations.”

(All emphasis as stated in the report, called “Evaluation of Potential Health Impacts From Ethylene Oxide Emissions,” specific to Sterigenics International in Willowbrook.)

Tuesday, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency formally referred the case to Attorney General Lisa Madigan, asking her office to move to shut down Sterigenics at least until additional testing can be done to determine the health risk.

The Chicago Tribune ran a story crediting the action to Rauner in an “about-face,” even though the actual IEPA statement made no mention of the governor.

But the Trib also pointed out that, before the report was released to the public, the IEPA “quietly” granted Sterigenics a permit to install new pollution-control equipment, thus “making it more difficult for authorities to pursue legal action against the company unless it can be proved that the fix has failed to eliminate health risks from ethylene-oxide pollution.”

According to the initial report, emissions were far worse in the ‘90s, before Sterigenics installed new equipment, but emissions have continued at a reduced level since.

Local residents have insisted that no level of ethylene oxide is safe, most recently in a news conference held outside the Thompson Center on Tuesday.

The initial report found: “The Willowbrook industrial complex where Sterigenics is located is in a densely populated metropolitan area, with 19,271 people living within one mile of the facility boundary. There are four schools and one day-care facility within one mile of the facility.”

Yet the IEPA resisted passing along emissions data to Madigan’s office, even after the attorney general made a Freedom of Information Act request for it. The IEPA emphasized that it submitted more than 700 pages of documents to Madigan, but allowed that it held back more than 200 pages of additional data as “confidential business information.”

Complicating it all is that Rauner has owned a piece of Sterigenics through investments. Although he insisted in a WBEZ-FM interview last week that he had liquidated those investments, the Tribune reported Wednesday that his representatives “have not produced documents showing the transactions took place.”

Regardless, the fact remains that Rauner’s IEPA resisted releasing information on Sterigenics until local politicians — many of them facing re-election in the Republican bastion of DuPage County — compelled him to do so to address public fear and outrage.

Which brings us back to the old story of the repeated outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease at the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy. WBEZ-FM’s Tony Arnold and Dave McKinney released a new story Wednesday reporting that Rauner’s office deliberately withheld public notice of the outbreaks over political concerns.

 The Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy has suffered repeated outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease under Gov. Rauner. (One Illinois/Zachary Sigelko)

The Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy has suffered repeated outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease under Gov. Rauner. (One Illinois/Zachary Sigelko)

According to the story, when the first outbreak occurred in the first year of Rauner’s term, 2015, Rauner’s press secretary instructed counterparts in the state Department of Veterans’ Affairs: “I do not think we need to issue a statement to the media. Let’s hold and see if we receive any reporter inquiries.”

According to WBEZ-FM, officials waited six days from when the first case was detected to inform the public — two days after the press secretary’s email, which the public radio station obtained, along with other pertinent documents, in a FOIA request. There was another outbreak the following year, “and, again, the state kept the public in the dark.” And after another outbreak last year, “the state took months to share the news.”

The station reported that the delays in releasing the news to the public risked a major outbreak, and that as it is “the deaths of 14 residents have been tied to Legionnaires’ since 2015, and nearly 70 residents and staff have been sickened.”

On Wednesday, Attorney General Lisa Madigan announced she was opening a probe into the state’s actions at the home. “We are investigating whether any laws were violated in the response to the risks of and outbreak of Legionella at the Quincy veterans’ home, where many people died,” said Madigan spokeswomen Eileen Boyce. “There needs to be an investigation to determine if laws were violated and whether residents of the home, their families, veterans’ home staff, and the public were informed in a timely and appropriate manner.”

Of course, don’t forget that WBEZ-FM previously reported another email from Rauner’s Deputy Chief of Staff Darlene Senger in the midst of the outbreaks suggesting: “We can maybe tie this back to Duckworth,” meaning U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who previously ran veterans’ affairs, but years before the outbreaks occurred.

Senger is now running against Comptroller Susana Mendoza, who has made that email a campaign issue.

So two stories, years apart, but showing the same pattern of withholding potentially damaging health information from the public for political expedience.