Court tosses Sterigenics suit

Federal judge dismisses Sterigenics case against IEPA, preserves seal order

Sterigenics in Willowbrook will remain sealed from using ethylene oxide after the most recent court decision. (One Illinois/Zachary Sigelko)

Sterigenics in Willowbrook will remain sealed from using ethylene oxide after the most recent court decision. (One Illinois/Zachary Sigelko)

By Ted Cox

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by Sterigenics against the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency in a bid to reopen its facilities in Willowbrook.

Chief Judge Ruben Castillo dismissed the suit in an order filed Friday in the U.S. District Court for northern Illinois, basically determining that federal law couldn’t overrule the state agency, and in effect siding with the IEPA in its declared “emergency” at the Willowbrook sterilization company.

Sterigenics charged that the IEPA and acting director John Kim had “overstepped their authority” in issuing a seal order in February preventing the firm from using ethylene oxide in its sterilization process, in what amounted to “regulation by ambush.”

Willowbrook and surrounding towns have been up in arms since a federal agency issued a report last August blaming Sterigenics and EtO emissions for a cancer cluster in the area. Under former Gov. Bruce Rauner, the IEPA dragged its feet on releasing emissions data at Sterigenics before asking then-Attorney General Lisa Madigan to move to shut down the firm in court. Madigan’s office filed suit, but it wasn't until a month after Gov. J.B. Pritzker took office that the IEPA took decisive action and issued the seal order.

In its suit, Sterigenics called the August report “questionable,” and said it was releasing “far less ethylene oxide than its permit allows” and that it was “not currently in violation” of any laws when it was shut down.

It also claimed that in a “typical day” it sterilized 1,000 medical supplies for heart surgery, 1,000 knee implants, 1,500 surgical kits, 16,000 catheters, and 11,000 syringes.

Members of the Illinois congressional delegation, however, had already questioned the legal levels for EtO, pointing out that the Obama administration formally declared it a carcinogen in its last months at the end of 2016, but the Trump administration never took follow-up steps to adjust the legal limits. And the Illinois Department of Public Health also found a cancer cluster in the area in a report released this year.

The IEPA did not halt the use of EtO over legal limits in issuing the seal order, but instead declared an “emergency” over the “imminent and substantial endangerment to the public health, welfare, or environment.” It said it had a right where “swift action is necessary to protect the public health and safety,” and it argued against the federal suit intruding on “an ongoing state administrative hearing.”

Friday’s ruling found that Sterigenics had no federal rights to base the suit on to overrule the IEPA, although it invited Sterigenics to pursue the case in state courts. Bloomberg News reported the decision Monday.

So the Sterigenics seal order remains intact, while Lake County groups and Illinois members of Congress call for similar testing in the area surrounding Medline Industries in Waukegan and Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee.