Quigley chides EPA head on Sterigenics

Duckworth, Durbin call on Homeland Security to reassess EtO threat

Congressman Mike Quigley grilled the EPA head on concerns over ethylene oxide on Tuesday. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Congressman Mike Quigley grilled the EPA head on concerns over ethylene oxide on Tuesday. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

A Chicago congressman charged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday with shirking its duties on ethylene-oxide emissions at Sterigenics in Willowbrook.

Acknowledging that Willowbrook is not in his district, Rep. Mike Quigley nonetheless grilled EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler on why the agency had dragged its feet on Sterigenics even after a federal report declared last summer that it was responsible for a cancer cluster in the area.

“Why did it take the state to shut that place down?” Quigley said in questioning as part of a House subcommittee meeting on EPA appropriations.

Saying, “The state of Illinois has relied upon us,” Wheeler insisted his agency had passed its EtO emissions data along to the Illinois EPA. “To take an action like that we have to make sure that it can be upheld in court. We are working aggressively on a new regulation.”

Yet Quigley countered that the EPA knew in 2016, under the Obama administration, that EtO was “30 times more carcinogenic than previously suspected.” The Trump administration’s EPA, however, has yet to update permissible EtO emissions.

In that, he echoed U.S. Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, as well as his House colleagues, who demanded in November that the EPA set new EtO limits.

The Stop Sterigenics grassroots group in Chicago’s western suburbs surrounding Willowbrook has insisted there is no safe level of EtO emissions. The Sterigenics sterilization company has been able to argue that it was operating under federally permissible levels — that is, until the IEPA under Gov. Pritzker shut down the company’s EtO operations in February.

Quigley referred to the latest emissions data taken since the shutdown, saying, “Your monitoring showed when they shut it down the numbers went down dramatically,” establishing a clear link between Sterigenics and EtO levels.

As U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski of Western Springs said in a statement following the release of that data: “Sterigenics is clearly the culprit. The numbers don’t lie.”

“The cancer risks were extraordinary,” Quigley said Tuesday, “and you still let IEPA do the heavy lifting.”

He charged that, under the Trump administration, more than 100 EPA employees have left the agency’s Region 5 offices concentrating on states surrounding the Great Lakes, and that few had been replaced.

Also Tuesday, Duckworth and Durbin took their pleas on EtO to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, asking that it revise its assessment of the substance on its Chemicals of Interest list. They pointed out that EtO is not only inflammable, but that the department “should also recognize its explosive quality.”

“EtO has been involved in incidents resulting in major plant damage as well as fatalities,” the senators wrote in a letter to DHS Secretary Kristjen Nielsen. “This update will harmonize [DHS’s] description of EtO with the commonly accepted understanding that EtO poses an explosive hazard in chemical-facility settings. In addition, DHS should continually evaluate and update, as necessary, the categorization of all chemicals of interest to ensure risk assessment matches the best available science.”

EtO emissions have also caused a cancer scare in Lake County surrounding Medline in Waukegan and Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee. The Stop EtO group in the area has followed the lead of Stop Sterigenics in demanding new testing and answers on the risk, and in seeking that the facilities be shut down.

On Wednesday, Stop EtO issued a statement saying that plans to test the air at the sites are insufficient. Lake County Health Department Executive Director Mark Pfister has called for federal agencies to examine whether there is a cancer cluster in the area, as found at Sterigenics, but in the meantime the department plans to conduct air tests at the two companies.

Stop EtO charged that was a “bare-bone” proposal and “not a thorough testing plan,” and that it did not compare to more extensive testing done in and around the Sterigenics sites in Willowbrook.

“Although we are encouraged by the fact that the Lake County Health Department is planning to conduct independent air testing in conjunction with the city of Waukegan and the village of Gurnee (starting in the coming weeks), we are incredibly concerned about the scope of work they are undertaking,” Stop EtO said in a statement. “They plan to test the air every three days (for a month) and that basically amounts to about 10 days of testing (and not in many locations).”

Calling that “grossly inadequate,” the group added, “Lake County deserves the same urgent response and meticulous testing that was done in Willowbrook. The Medline facility is no different than Sterigenics and our lives are just as valuable. Sparse data will not help anyone or inspire confidence among our residents that our community is safe.”

Saying, “Lake County residents will not remain silent and this issue will not just disappear,” Stop EtO has called for an Awareness Rally and Protest at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at the corner of Grand Avenue and Hunt Club Road in Gurnee, near the Gurnee Mills Mall.

Ted Cox