Sterigenics to close up shop!

Sterilization firm announces plans to ‘exit Willowbrook,’ Stop Sterigenics exults

Stop Sterigenics holds a rally in Willowbrook in August. (Facebook/Stop Sterigenics)

Stop Sterigenics holds a rally in Willowbrook in August. (Facebook/Stop Sterigenics)

By Ted Cox

Sterigenics announced Monday that it would be leaving Willowbrook — and Illinois.

The embattled sterilization company, which faced the first calls for it to close from the grassroots group Stop Sterigenics almost exactly a year ago, issued a news release Monday stating that it would “exit Willowbrook.”

Stop Sterigenics immediately posted the news on its Facebook page. “The Willowbrook area is strong and vibrant,” the group said in a statement. “We are truly a community and are relieved to read that this company has decided to stop emitting toxins where we work, children play, and where we call home.”

“Thank you to everyone for all of your work,” posted Katie Claire, a Willowbrook resident, on Facebook. “The residents of Willowbrook and the surrounding towns owe the team a huge debt. I wish i could personally thank each and every one of you! You have beat the Goliath.”

“We’re thrilled and looking forward to life after Sterigenics,” said Willowbrook Mayor Frank Trilla at an end-of-the-day news conference outside the Village Hall.

“You can breathe again,” added state Rep. Jim Durkin of Western Springs, the House minority leader. “You can go back to living a normal life. Sterigenics is closed.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker cheered the announcement as “a significant development, demonstrating that Illinoisans will come together to protect the health and well-being of all our residents.”

Sterigenics has been under increasing public pressure since a federal report issued in August of last year found an increased risk of cancer in an area surrounding Willowbrook and cited the use of carcinogenic ethylene oxide at the sterilization company. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency dragged its feet on taking action, and critics including then-Attorney General Lisa Madigan attributed that to Bruce Rauner, the governor at the time, who had owned stock in the company.

But the IEPA acted one month into the term of Gov. J.B. Pritzker and issued a seal order on Sterigenics’s use of EtO.

The General Assembly passed new strict regulations on EtO, signed into law by Pritzker earlier this year. But, when Sterigenics announced it would try to comply with those regulations and reopen, that caused great consternation in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, and prompted a flurry of new legislation scheduled for the fall veto session.

That point is now moot, at least in the southwest suburbs, as Sterigencs announced Monday it would “exit Willowbrook.” The firm repeatedly made a point in the announcement that it had been formally cleared to at least attempt to reopen by the IEPA, Attorney General Kwame Raoul, and DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin.

“Despite these approvals, Sterigenics could not reach an agreement to renew the lease on its Quincy Street facility in Willowbrook in the present environment,” the release stated. “Given the unstable legislative and regulatory landscape in Illinois, Sterigenics will not pursue reopening of its second location on Midway Drive in Willowbrook.”

The firm backed out claiming victory, saying it “appreciates that the state of Illinois has clearly acknowledged the company’s consistent record of regulatory compliance as well as the safety of the new controls we agreed to implement.” But it pointedly added that “inaccurate and unfounded claims regarding Sterigenics and the unstable legislative and regulatory landscape in Illinois have created an environment in which it is not prudent to maintain these critical sterilization operations in Willowbrook.”

Or anywhere in Illinois. Sterigenics has also come under fire from another Stop Sterigenics group in Georgia, but is not likely to reattempt to open elsewhere in Illinois. “We are actively taking steps to ensure customer and patient needs continue to be met by our other facilities and are working with our employees throughout this transition,” the company stated. “Sterigenics will continue to lead the way in industry safety by voluntarily implementing new controls at our other sterilization facilities.”

Part of the public posturing is no doubt in response to pending lawsuits filed by local residents attributing a host of health woes to the company and its use of EtO.

“This is very good news for a community that has worked tirelessly for more than a year to shine a light on Sterigenics’s misdeeds and on the danger of ethylene oxide,” said Patrick Salvi II, an attorney representing community members who’ve been sickened after living near the facility. “This has been a grassroots effort to ensure that the air being breathed is clean and safe. Though we are pleased to hear future generations of residents will not need to live in fear of being sickened by Sterigenics, we cannot forget about the many thousands of people who have suffered serious illnesses because of this company’s greed. Even in leaving the area, Sterigenics fails to accept responsibility for their actions. We look forward to continuing to hold Sterigenics responsible for their many years of misconduct.”

Durkin also criticized state and federal agencies for failing to do more. “Neither the U.S. EPA or IEPA did us any favors in this process,” he said at the news conference. “It’s the community behind me that was not going to be denied.”

Stop Sterigenics said it would continue the fight for even stricter standards and an outright state ban on EtO, stating: “Other areas in the state still need better protections from ethylene oxide emissions, however. The legislature should follow through with these protections for all Illinois communities during this fall veto session.”

The grassroots group and other critics, including U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, blamed the U.S. EPA for much of the problem. EtO was formally declared a carcinogen in the waning months of the Obama administration at the end of 2016, but under President Trump the EPA never reset legal EtO standards. That enabled Sterigenics — as well as Medline Industries and Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Lake County — to insist that they had operated legally and never violated the licenses granted them to use EtO.

Illinois congressional Democrats made repeated attempts to get the EPA to reassess legal limits on EtO, but the EPA thus far has not taken action.

“Illinoisans should have confidence that the air they are breathing is safe,” said U.S. Rep. Sean Casten of Downers Grove in a statement. “Unfortunately, the actions of Sterigenics made it impossible for those who live and work in Willowbrook and the surrounding communities to have that peace of mind. For that reason, I support Sterigenics's decision to close its Willowbrook facility. It is a credit to the hard work of the community for coming together to voice their opinion. Moving forward, I will continue to urge the U.S. EPA to do their job and communicate about the potential risks posed by ethylene-oxide emissions, as well as the (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) to ensure a robust medical supply chain that will not endanger patient safety.”

Public attention now figures to turn to Lake County and efforts to curtail operations at Medline and Vantage.