Senators seek EPA probe on Sterigenics

Durbin, Duckworth, Congressman Foster ask inspector general to investigate apparent cover-up

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin has joined Senate colleague Tammy Duckworth and Congressman Bill Foster in demanding answers on the Sterigenics investigation. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin has joined Senate colleague Tammy Duckworth and Congressman Bill Foster in demanding answers on the Sterigenics investigation. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

Three prominent members of the Illinois congressional delegation have formally asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to probe an apparent cover-up involving the Sterigenics firm in Willowbrook.

U.S. Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin and U.S. Rep. Bill Foster announced Thursday that they had sent a formal letter to the EPA’s inspector general seeking an investigation into whether the agency “complied with all statutory, regulatory, and policy requirements and protocols when it intentionally withheld critical health information from the public about carcinogenic air pollution from the Sterigenics facility.”

It follows a previous letter the three sent to the EPA last month calling for the EPA to take action on Sterigenics.

But the new, more forceful letter cites a recent Chicago Tribune story that charged that “in December 2017, EPA sent a letter to Sterigenics linking high cancer risks in the area to (ethylene oxide) emissions from the facility. However, EPA decided to withhold this vital information from the public for eight months.”

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has also leveled that charge against the EPA, and the Tribune story stated that the Illinois EPA was also informed of the “cancer cluster” late last year. It wasn’t until August, however, that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published a report informing the public of a heightened cancer risk in the area surrounding the Sterigenics facility in Willowbrook and blaming emissions of ethylene oxide.

Gov. Bruce Rauner has held an ownership stake in Sterigenics through investments, and his IEPA resisted requests from Madigan’s office to release emissions data on Sterigenics until compelled to take action by area officials in DuPage County and residents up in arms about what they perceived as a cover-up. Earlier, before the public was informed of the cancer risk, IEPA allowed Sterigenics to install new pollution-control devices that have complicated efforts to hold the firm accountable.

The latest letter to the EPA inspector general states: “An investigation is necessary to determine whether proper measures were taken to protect the lives of those affected by EtO emissions from the facility, to hold officials accountable, and to assure that proper protocol is followed in the future if any similar situation arises.”

It reminds the inspector general: “The EPA is responsible for protecting human health with safeguards to assure our nation has clean and safe air, water, and environment for all Americans. Making certain that proper action is taken when it is discovered that a community is facing a public health risk, is essential for the public to have confidence that the EPA is doing its job.”

Both Rauner and President Trump have boasted about the success of their deregulation efforts in allowing businesses to act freely. Trump’s EPA issued a new release earlier this week stating that it had been “misrepresented in (the) press,” but without explaining the eight-month gap between when it informed Sterigenics of the heightened cancer risk and when the public was informed.

Only after Republican officials in DuPage County and the Stop Sterigenics community group raised issues about the Sterigenics cancer scare did the IEPA ask Madigan’s office to move to shut down Sterigenics until more testing can be done. The Office of the Attorney General charged that IEPA did not make experts available to pursue that suit for weeks, but it eventually did move to shut down Sterigenics earlier this week.

Rauner stated in a debate with his Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker that he had divested of his holdings in Sterigenics, but according to the Tribune he has yet to produce documents to prove that.

The Tribune added a new story Friday charging that areas of Lake County may also be in jeopardy from another firm, Medline Industries, releasing ethylene oxide into the air in Waukegan, as well as another firm in Gurnee.