EPA workers 'shackled' by Trump in enforcing EtO regulations

Groups blame lax EPA for cancer scare in Willowbrook, Lake County

Participants in Tuesday’s news conference pose for a photo afterward. (Twitter/Illinois Environmental Council)

Participants in Tuesday’s news conference pose for a photo afterward. (Twitter/Illinois Environmental Council)

By Ted Cox

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is failing to enforce regulations and bears responsibility for the cancer scare over ethylene oxide in Willowbrook and Lake County, according to union workers and environmental activists.

A handful of grassroots groups and environmental organizations joined EPA union workers Tuesday at a news conference in Chicago accusing the agency of failing to do its duty to protect the air and water. They focused on the Sterigenics firm in southwest-suburban Willowbrook, blamed for a cancer cluster in the area due to its use of EtO in sterilization, and other firms using EtO in Lake County.

Nicole Cantello, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704 representing hundreds of Midwest EPA workers, many stationed in Chicago, said locally the agency was down 130 employees and 1,000 nationally. According to Cantello, the EPA “has lost 19 percent of its enforcement staff nationwide.”

She blamed the Trump administration, pointing to the 31 percent budget cut President Trump has proposed for the EPA in his budget.

“We are in the middle of an EPA staffing crisis that endangers the people of Illinois,” Cantello said. “Despite the dramatic risk to public health that Sterigenics is creating, U.S. EPA has taken no enforcement action whatsoever.

“Our members — scientists, lawyers, engineers — have been shackled by the Trump administration and its policies at EPA,” she added. “To date, the EPA has not taken any enforcement actions at any of the ethylene-oxide facilities, even though the EPA Air Director Bill Wehrum admits the standards set by U.S. EPA are too low.”

Wehrum had a role in a public forum last week in Burr Ridge in which the EPA revealed that residents in the area had a cancer risk 10 times what’s considered normal. A federal report issued last summer blamed EtO emissions at Sterigenics for a cancer cluster. The Obama administration formally labeled EtO a carcinogen late in 2016, shortly before Trump took office, but under his administration the EPA never revised allowable EtO levels, permitting Sterigenics and Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee and Medline Industries in Waukegan to continue operating as they had. Members of the Illinois congressional delegation have repeatedly called for the establishment of new, stricter EtO levels.

“What we’re seeing time and again from this administration is a policy and practice to side with corporations and their profits rather than the communities and the people,” said Bryce Hensley, an attorney with the law firm of Romanucci & Blandic representing hundreds of area residents in the southwest suburbs over the cancer controversy.

The Illinois EPA issued a seal order at Sterigenics in February, a month after Gov. Pritzker’s inauguration, forbidding the use of EtO at the firm. That was after the state EPA failed to take action under former Gov. Rauner against a firm he previously had an ownership stake in — apart from recommending that the state attorney general file suit to close the facility.

“While our governor is directing Illinois EPA to take action and protect these communities from ethylene oxide, Trump is making every attempt to prevent U.S. EPA from doing the same,” said Colleen Smith of the Illinois Environmental Council. “As the U.S. EPA is hamstrung by these policies, communities suffer.”

J.C. Kibbey of the Natural Resources Defense Council said, “It is abolsutely unacceptable that these facilities in Willowbrook and the Gurnee-Waukegan area are increasing cancer risks to over 10 times the federal health standards.”

Jack Darin, director of the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club, praised the EPA’s rank-and-file employees and asked that they be allowed to simply do their jobs. Calling it “an outrageous public-health crisis,” he said, “The health crisis in Willowbrook is a perfect example of what happens when an administration does not let the professionals protect the environment and turns a blind eye to science and puts all of our health at risk.

“Let the scientists, let the engineers do their job to protect us all,” he added.

“We find ourselves stymied throughout this process by Bill Wehrum and by (EPA) Administrator (Andrew) Wheeler as we try to protect our community,” said Sri Rao of the grassroots group Stop Sterigenics. “Something needs to change. This administration is holding back and it’s hurting our community in order to protect industry. This administration is looking only to protect industry and not any of the people living here.”

Cantello emphasized that the EPA had taken no action against any of the EtO firms. “The U.S. EPA has not sent inspectors out to these facilities to see if they’re in compliance with the laws or endangering public health,” she said. “It has become painfully clear to all of us workers at U.S. EPA that President Trump cares more about keeping people out of the country than he cares about the health and welfare of the people living in it.”