Duckworth: Lake County slighted on EtO

Senator says low-income ‘communities of color’ bear brunt of carcinogenic pollution

Sen. Tammy Duckworth poses with Lake County environmental activists after a meeting Monday on the dangers posed by emissions of ethylene oxide. (Sen. Tammy Duckworth)

Sen. Tammy Duckworth poses with Lake County environmental activists after a meeting Monday on the dangers posed by emissions of ethylene oxide. (Sen. Tammy Duckworth)

By Ted Cox

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth met with Lake County environmental groups Monday and said “low-income communities and communities of color” typically bear the brunt of pollution such as emissions of ethylene oxide.

Duckworth met with members of Clean Power Lake County, the Sierra Club Woods & Wetlands Group, and Faith in Place in Waukegan to “discuss her legislation aimed at addressing the EtO crisis,” according to a news release put out by the senator’s office.

Duckworth suggested Lake County has not received the same attention as the Willowbrook area in the southwest suburbs of Chicago when it comes to EtO emissions. Sterigenics has been slapped with a seal order banning use of EtO in its sterilization processes, but Medline Industries in Waukegan and Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee — both located in industrial areas in communities that are not as well off as Willowbrook — continue to operate.

“Even at low levels, ethylene oxide is dangerous to public health, yet the EPA keeps failing to protect many Illinoisans from breathing toxic air, and that’s unacceptable,” Duckworth said. “Sadly, environmental challenges like these disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color. I know we can’t take back the damage already done in the Waukegan area, but I will keep working with local leaders like those I met with today to help improve the situation at hand in the months ahead.”

Duckworth and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin have led Illinois congressional Democrats in calling for the Environmental Protect Agency to reset permissible EtO levels after the Obama administration declared it to be a carcinogen at the end of 2016 shortly before President Trump took office. The Trump administration, however, has never done so, and they’ve gone on to charge EPA with “capitulation” to business interests in failing to defend the environment and clean air and water.

Sterigenics, Medline, and Vantage have all maintained that they’ve operated under legal limits for EtO.

Duckworth told a reporter with the Lake County News-Sun that the are was not receiving the same intense attention that the Willowbrook area has when it comes to EtO emissions and their effect on local residents. “I think that black and brown communities get overlooked quite often, and then there’s also a resource issue,” she said. “The municipalities couldn’t afford what Willowbrook could afford.”

Politicians and Lake County grassroots groups have repeatedly called for the EPA to conduct the same sort of testing and research in the northern suburbs that they have in Willowbrook and DuPage County.

Monday’s meeting was organized by Faith in Place and did not include the grassroots group Stop EtO in Lake County. But according to the group, it reached out to Duckworth’s office afterward and was told the senator "knows very well that Stop EtO has been a leader in Lake County. She remembers your presence at the Gurnee town hall and all of the work you have done. She remains incredibly frustrated that the communities in Lake County have not gotten the attention that DuPage has received."

Stop EtO said the issue is bigger than race and class.

“Lake County as a whole is a very diverse community of races, cultures, and incomes,” said Stop EtO spokesman Tea Tanaka. “EtO emissions from Medline impact both the poor and wealthy. Yes, Medline is located in Waukegan, which is a poorer community with a majority of population being African Americans, Hispanics, and Latinos. However, within a two-mile radius, Green Oaks, for instance, is white and wealthy. Children there are also being impacted by cancer-causing EtO emissions.

“For this reason, Stop EtO in Lake County has been very careful not to pigeonhole ourselves and this issue as solely a racial or environmental-justice issue. We need all of our Lake County communities to rally together against this toxin and get it out of our air. Cancer does not discriminate,” Tanaka added. “Faith in Place leaders feel differently, and that is OK. They have a different base of people who they are rallying. At the end of the day, we are all fighting the same Goliath.”