Hundreds protest against Sterigenics reopening

‘We want them gone,’ says Stop Sterigenics, after ‘fairly contentious’ public meeting

Local residents gather in Willowbrook Thursday evening ahead of a public meeting held by the IEPA on Sterigenics. (Facebook/Rianna Conev Bachan)

Local residents gather in Willowbrook Thursday evening ahead of a public meeting held by the IEPA on Sterigenics. (Facebook/Rianna Conev Bachan)

By Ted Cox

The governor says residents in and around Willowbrook should “get what they want” in dealing with Sterigenics and its use of carcinogenic ethylene oxide, but what residents repeated at a public meeting Thursday night is, “We want them gone.”

Hundreds of people turned out Thursday for a public meeting in Willowbrook held by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, with a protest scheduled ahead of that by the Stop Sterigenics grassroots group. At issue was Sterigenics’s bid to reopen after the IEPA issued a seal order in February banning the use of carcinogenic EtO in the firm’s sterilization processes.

The General Assembly passed stringent new regulations on EtO this spring, and Gov. Pritzker signed that bill into law, calling it a “tourniquet” on emissions. Sterigenics then reached a consent decree with Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin last month to potentially resume operations with the use of EtO, but according to Pritzker that consent decree set even stricter emission standards than the new state law.

That has not calmed local residents in Chicago’s southwest suburbs.

“From the beginning, I’ve said we should do everything we can to keep Sterigenics closed,” Pritzker said Thursday afternoon at a separate event at the Thompson Center. He said he had called on legislators to send him “as strong a bill as you possibly can” on EtO emissions, and he’d sign it, which he did.

Earlier this week, state Sen. John Curran of Downers Grove filed an additional bill that would ban EtO emissions by 2022. “Now the legislators want something stronger, and the people of Willowbrook want something stronger,” Pritzker said, adding, “I will sign it.

“As far as I’m concerned, the people of Willowbrook and the people of the surrounding area should get what they want,” Pritzker concluded.

But what they stated Thursday is they no longer trust Sterigenics, and they want the firm out completely.

Stop Sterigenics formed last fall after a federal agency issued a report in August detecting an elevated cancer risk in the area in and around Willowbrook in the southwest suburbs and blaming it on Sterigenics.

The bill Pritzker signed was known as the Matt Haller Act, named after a local resident who died of stomach cancer earlier this year. Haller’s widow, Colleen, spoke at Thursday’s meeting, saying, “Nobody in this community should have to go through the pain and loss that I went through.”

“It was very moving,” said Sri Rao of Stop Sterigenics on Friday. “She is not going to be able to move on in her grief until they’re gone.”

It illustrates how local residents have reached the end of their patience on the issue and have crossed a point of no return when it comes to trusting Sterigenics.

“After 30-something years of broken promises, this would be Sterigenics’s fourth consent decree,” Rao said. “At this point, 34 years poisoning our community, enough’s enough. We want them gone.”

Rao called the public meeting, attended by hundreds, “fairly contentious” but also “fairly disappointing.”

The IEPA has had to maintain a legal balance to make its seal order stick, but Rao and Stop Sterigenics charged the agency had gone too far bending over backwards to accommodate the firm.

“We’re in the hands of the IEPA right now. It’s not a very comfortable place to be,” Rao said. “IEPA throughout this entire process has acted as a lobbyist for Sterigenics instead of working for the people.”

A court suit filed by Sterigenics in a bid to bust the seal order and reopen is waiting for localities to file briefs before a potential ruling in September. But Rao said Thursday’s public meeting concerned the possibility that the IEPA could issue a construction permit before that allowing Sterigenics to install the equipment it insists will allow it to meet the strict new regulations signed into law this summer.

IEPA spokeswoman Kim Biggs said the agency is bound to follow state and federal environmental regulations, and “if Illinois EPA determines that the legal requirements for obtaining a permit have been satisfied by the applicant, the Illinois EPA is required to issue the construction permit.”

Stop Sterigenics has maintained all along that “no level of EtO is safe,” and Rao charged that the IEPA was potentially ignoring one element of the new law compelling Sterigenics to show that EtO is essential to its sterilization processes — a position also backed by the Illinois congressional delegation led by Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin.

Rao said Stop Sterigenics would like to see the governor call a special session of the General Assembly to take up Curran’s outright ban on EtO immediately. Pritzker has said he’d be agreeable, but thus far legislators haven’t pressed him to take that urgent step.

“We want our politicians to work together and solve this,” Rao said.

According to Rao, the group was also irritated by Thursday’s meeting in that they were told they could demand answers immediately or ask for a written reply from the IEPA. Many people, he said, asked for written replies so they would have more of their two minutes of allotted time to ask more questions — only to discover at the end of the meeting that the IEPA would most likely deliver those written replies after making a decision on the Sterigenics construction permit in mid-August.

Meanwhile, according to Rao, some area residents are finding it literally difficult to move on — as the cancer scare has caused property values to plummet as even more homes go up for sale. He said a realtor testified at Thursday’s meeting on the “historic amount of houses on the market,” not only in Willowbrook but in Darien and Burr Ridge.