Stop Sterigenics rips IEPA EtO permit

Grassroots group turns focus to General Assembly’s fall veto session to ban ethylene oxide

Stop Sterigenics, with Lauren Kaeseberg at left, is pushing for a complete ban on ethylene oxide. (Facebook/Stop Sterigenics)

Stop Sterigenics, with Lauren Kaeseberg at left, is pushing for a complete ban on ethylene oxide. (Facebook/Stop Sterigenics)

By Ted Cox

The Illinois Environmental Protect Agency granted a shuttered ethylene-oxide polluter a construction permit in a bid to meet the state’s new strict emission standards on Friday, but residents in the Willowbrook area said that’s not good enough to ease their concerns and that they’d push for a complete ban on EtO in the upcoming fall veto session in the General Assembly.

The IEPA announced late Friday that it would grant the Sterigenics firm in Willowbrook a construction permit that would allow it to install new pollution-control equipment that would “reduce emissions 99.9 percent” and potentially clear the way for the company to reopen and renew EtO sterilization. According to a news release put out by the agency, it was “following legislation passed by the General Assembly to impose the nation’s strongest controls on ethylene-oxide emissions.”

But that failed to mollify the grassroots group Stop Sterigenics, which began its efforts almost exactly a year ago to shut down the company after a federal report declared an elevated cancer risk in the suburbs in and around Willowbrook and attributed blame to EtO emissions.

“We have zero faith in the Illinois EPA,” said Stop Sterigenics leader Lauren Kaeseberg at a news conference held Friday evening outside the company’s offices. “If any of us have anything to say about this, they will never reopen ever again.”

Pointing out that the news about the construction permit was “dumped” at 5 p.m. Friday to minimize media coverage, Kaeseberg added, “Illinois EPA, you failed us again and again and again and again.”

IEPA Director John Kim insisted the agency is “committed to protecting the health and safety of Illinois communities to the strongest extent possible under state and federal laws,” adding, “This construction permit is a direct result of legislation passed by the General Assembly and will allow Sterigenics to attempt to bring the facility in line with the nation’s strongest emissions-control law. This is the first step in a lengthy process, and only following strict testing and monitoring requirements would the facility be permitted to operate.”

“I’m very disappointed,” said Mayor Gary Grasso of neighboring Burr Ridge. “The fundamental purpose of government is to protect us,” he added. “And again our Illinois EPA has not protected us. Unfortunately, we’ve now come to expect them not to protect us.”

A spokeswoman for Willowbrook Mayor Frank Trilla said, “‘Livid’ does not begin to describe the feelings we have at the village today.”

Stop Sterigenics and local officials responded with a change in tactics, calling off a demonstration planned for Monday and instead turning to a “Write to Fight for Clean Air” campaign sending postcards to legislative leaders in support of House Bills 3885 and 3888, sponsored by House Minority leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs and state Rep. Rita Mayfield of Waukegan. That event is set for 2:45 p.m. Saturday at the Indian Prairie Public Library, 401 Plainfield Road, Darien.

After the IEPA under former Gov. Bruce Rauner — who has reportedly owned stock in the company — dragged its feet on closing down Sterigenics, Gov. Pritzker oversaw a seal order placed on the firm a month into his term in February. Then in June he signed new bills into law applying what he called a “tourniquet” to EtO emissions, calling on firms using EtO to cut emissions of the carcinogen 99.9 percent to 0.2 parts per million. One bill was named the Matt Haller Act, after a local resident who lost his life to cancer blamed on EtO emissions earlier this year.

Yet the governor, IEPA, Attorney General Kwame Raoul, and DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin were caught by surprise when Sterigenics nonetheless accepted the new standards and announced its attempt to reopen after installing new pollution-control devices. Since then, they’ve had no choice but to allow the business to attempt to meet the new requirements, including the construction permit granted Friday.

Stop Sterigenics, however, has insisted all along that there are no safe limits of EtO — formally declared a carcinogen in the waning months of the Obama administration in late 2016 — and they pointed to how the law allows a firm to release 85 pounds a year of EtO into the atmosphere.

So the grassroots group will shift to a postcard campaign backing two new pieces of legislation set for consideration during the fall veto session at the end of October. HB3885, sponsored by Durkin, would allow home-rule municipalities to enact stricter laws than the state on EtO. HB3888, sponsored by Mayfield, whose Waukegan area has also been under an EtO cloud from the Lake County firms Medline Industries and Vantage Specialty Chemicals, would ban EtO entirely in sterilization.

“The citizens of the affected areas have been battered around like a political ping-pong ball,” Stop Sterigenics said in a statement released Monday. “Today, residents from Cook, DuPage, and Lake counties join together with environmental and social-justice organizations and challenge Gov. Pritzker to stand by his commitment to pass the strictest legislation on ethylene oxide.”

“Protection from toxic, cancer-causing emissions is a human right,” said Gabriela Tejeda-Rios, a member of Stop Sterigenics. “It is a protection that every resident of Illinois deserves. We call upon our leadership in the administration to pass HB3888 and HB3885 and stand with us in declaring that the health and safety of all comes first.”

Pritzker has said residents in and around Willowbrook should “get what they want” in dealing with Sterigenics, and he signaled his readiness to even call a special session of the General Assembly if necessary. But it now appears the bills will wait for the fall veto session.

Pritzker nevertheless restated his support for even stronger laws in a statement released Monday. “Today, Illinois has the toughest regulations on ethylene oxide in the nation, but Gov. Pritzker is calling on the General Assembly to pass even more stringent restrictions in the veto session to protect residents’ health,” said spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh. “Upon taking office, Gov. Pritzker’s administration shut down Sterigenics. During the shutdown, the governor asked the General Assembly to pass the strictest possible law on ethylene-oxide emissions. It’s clear now that the legislation was insufficient, so during the upcoming veto session the governor expects that the General Assembly will strengthen the law they passed this spring. He is committed to signing the measure and the administration will strictly enforce it.”

Grasso endorsed efforts to “abolish this by legislation,” and Trilla’s statement echoed that, saying, “It is important to give all the parties the laws they need to enforce EtO.”

Kim actually endorsed that process as well, saying, “As we move forward, the Illinois EPA will continue to provide technical guidance to legislators as they draft further legislation to strengthen their initial law.”

“We’re not going to stop,” said Andrea Thome of Stop Sterigenics. “We going to fight this. Sterigenics will not reopen here.”