Tensions raw at House hearing on toxic gas leak disclosure rules

By: - March 3, 2020 7:11 am

Environmental debates among state lawmakers often stir passion and the 2020 session offered its share of dust ups over a range of toxic issues. In March, north Cobb Republican state Rep. Don Parsons got an earful after a hearing on proposed toxic gas release transparency rules from activist Janet Rau and state Rep. Erick Allen, who represents a district home to a plant that emits ethylene oxide. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

A debate over how to publicize the release of a cancer-causing gas leaked out from a meeting room into the hallways of a state government office Monday afternoon as lawmakers and activists exchanged heated words.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Don Parsons, a Republican from north Cobb, intends to add some reporting requirements when companies release ethylene oxide, a chemical with uses including the sterilization of medical equipment. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers it a carcinogen.

During and after the hearing, Parsons fended off criticism that his bill limits public transparency when a company releases the toxic pollutant. The critics are adamant that state environmental regulators report all releases, even ones below the 10-pound threshold Parsons is pushing for.

The EPA’s 2018 National Air Toxics Assessment found three Georgia census tracts affected by ethylene oxide, two in the Smyrna area in southern Cobb County and one in Covington in Newton County. Both locations are near sterilization facilities that have used ethylene oxide.

Parsons introduced the bill Monday to the House Resource Management Subcommittee. It would require facilities that use the substance to report any leak or spill to the state Environmental Protection Division within 24 hours. Any spill over ten pounds would also need to be posted on the EPD’s website.

“Any unauthorized release of ethylene oxide has to be reported to EPD,” Parsons said. “I think that’s huge. Any unauthorized release. To me, that goes right to the heart of the issue. The EPD … is going to know of any release whatsoever and the risk for the entity is being fined $20,000 per day or losing their permit. I’d say that’s pretty stiff. If I were a company using ethylene oxide, I know I would want to make sure I stayed in compliance.”

But the 10-pound limit seemed odd to Rep. Mary Frances Williams, a Marietta Democrat.

A state House bill proposes to require state environmental regulators to report leaks of toxic gas online, like the emissions documented at the Smyrna Sterigenics plant. Amie Brink/Web MD

Williams recounted remarks from attendees at a recent town hall meeting for people living near the Smyrna-area Sterigenics plant.

“One of their main concerns was the lack of transparency and not knowing when things were going on in that plant,” she said. “If you do not put a limit on that amount and say any spill had to be publicly reported, I think that would make the public feel more comfortable and more protected.”

Parsons said the 10 pounds standard is a relatively small amount and is in line with federal regulations. He said he doesn’t see the point in requiring leaks of a smaller size to be posted on the EPD’s website.

“I just don’t know that any amount is really what the people in the area would want anyway,” he said. “I used to live in that area, I lived there for a long time even after this plant was there. I don’t know if I’d want everything put on the website. I don’t know if I’d be checking it all the time. I think it’s adequate.”

Janet Rau, president of activist group Stop Sterigenics Georgia, said her 5,000 members would like to know about any unauthorized release, no matter how small.

Rau told the committee she is concerned releases of ethylene oxide less than 10 pounds could still be dangerous.

“Earlier last year, the facility out in Covington, Georgia had a series of spills that happened over a period of – it’s still a little unclear – eight to ten days,” she said. “They said those spills were seven pounds a day, so they didn’t have to report them because it was seven pounds per 24 hours, even though the entire spill is estimated to be closer to 70 pounds in total.”

She said under Parsons’ plan, the only way she could learn of leaks under 10 pounds would be by filing an open records request.

April Lipscomb, an attorney with Southern Environmental Law Center, said her group supports the bill, but would like it better if all leaks were posted to the EPD’s website rather than only those greater than 10 pounds.

“If EPD is already going to be putting the releases online for ten pounds or more, it’s going to be super easy for them just to go ahead and put them all online and ease the community’s concerns there.

“There’s a lot of controversy over what is safe for ethylene oxide, so we might as well make that information available as it comes in,” Lipscomb said.

Lipscomb also said the SELC believes amending the bill to mandate companies perform air testing near plants would help residents.

When it came time for a motion, Williams asked for an amendment to eliminate the 10-pound limit, but subcommittee Chair Rep. Timothy Barr, a Republican from Lawrenceville, blocked it.

“I am not going to authorize any amendments as the author asked that we keep this clean,” Barr said.

The bill passed with Williams the sole no vote.

That didn’t sit well with another Democratic Cobb Representative, Rep. Erick Allen, whose south Cobb district includes the Sterigenics plant.

Allen is the author of a similar bill that does not include the 10-pound limit.

Allen and Parsons clashed in the hallway outside the meeting room after the hearing was over.

“You won’t even let a comment come up or an amendment,” he said. “That’s absolutely cowardly. … He doesn’t know anything about (the bill). It was given to him by the governor walking down the hall. He doesn’t know anything about it.”

Rau also spoke with Parsons in the hallway, following him to the elevator.

“I would love to have an opportunity to talk to you and let you know what the people close to the area really think about this.”

Rau, a teacher, said breast cancer rates at her school are higher than other areas, but her group has had trouble getting information from Sterigenics and government sources.

“There have been leaks both at the Sterigenics facility and at the BD Bard facility in Covington,” she said. “We’ve had to uncover those doing open records requests. It’s a burden on the public to have to use open records requests in this way when the information should just be publicly available for something that is a known human carcinogen.”

“That’s what this bill is all about,” Parsons said.

“But you’re not giving us the information,” Rau said. “You’re requiring us to continue to chase down data that’s self-reported. It’s self-reported, so they play games with it.”

Speaking to the Georgia Recorder by phone after the meeting, Parsons said he believes the bill will help people living near ethylene oxide plants breathe a little easier.

He said other pollutants monitored by the EPD are not required to be posted on the EPD’s website when they leak.

“There is no requirement for the others, so if you did that for this, that would be making an exception, and there’s no good reason to make an exception,” he said. “We’re already saying ten pounds or more, which is where the federal government says there’s a problem.

”I just don’t really see why there needs to be a requirement at all for any release to be posted on a website,” he said  

Parsons also said the work Sterigenics and other companies do sterilizing medical equipment helps to save lives.

“It can’t be overstated how important the sterilization of medical equipment is, and I can’t even imagine in this time when we have the threat of this coronavirus and so much is being done, rightfully so, to make sure we’re prepared and eradicate it, it’s just a time that its extremely important for a company that provides that service to exist so we can help fight off that virus or any kind of threat like that.”

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.