Georgia lawmakers want more open EPD ethylene oxide disclosure

Toxic gas emissions at Smyrna's Sterigenics plant caused a community outcry last year and Thursday Georgia lawmakers passed legislation to require greater transparency in cases of industrial leaks Amie Brink/Web MD

Georgia lawmakers have revisited proposed new requirements for when companies must publicly disclose cancer-causing gas leaks.

The changes were made in committee Thursday amid pressure that an earlier proposal didn’t go far enough in imposing stronger oversight of ethylene oxide after a pair of metro Atlanta plants that use the chemical to sterilize medical equipment came under scrutiny last year for releases.

A Senate panel then met later in the day to sign off on the same proposal.

Before Thursday, lawmakers were set to require the state Environmental Protection Division to only publish on its website ethylene oxide leaks that exceed 10 pounds a day.

Under the new plan, those companies would have to report any gas leak to the state within 24 hours. All of those reported leaks would then be published online for the public to see, regardless of the amount.

Sierra Club lobbyist Neill Herring asks for Rep. Mary Frances Williams autograph after she and others successfully pressed for tighter requirements in a bill regulating ethylene oxide. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

Rep. Mary Frances Williams, a Marietta Democrat, said she was stunned by the sudden turn of events. Williams was the lone dissenting vote on the version of the laxer bill that passed out of subcommittee just Monday.

“I just keep thinking about the thousand people in that auditorium who were so afraid of the air they were breathing and the air they had breathed for years,” Williams told the Georgia Recorder, referring to a recent town hall meeting for people living near the Smyrna plant.

“I came down here to protect people and I just felt like I had to keep pushing,” she said.

Rep. Lynn Smith, a Newnan Republican who chairs the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee, said she sent the measure back down to the subcommittee level because that’s where she prefers debate to take place. She called the bill a compromise.

That subcommittee meeting took place during the full committee’s gathering, but the livestream of the proceeding was discontinued during the subcommittee meeting, since lawmakers generally do not livestream these oftentimes candid, and messy, discussions. There was no debate.

Rep. Don Parsons, a Marietta Republican who is sponsoring the bill, outlined the changes that he had earlier resisted for the panel and emphasized the role Sterigenics plays. The Smyrna-based facility has suspended its operations for now.

“They sterilize 35,000 protective gowns per day and more than 600,000 IV tubing sets per day, and I think that’s pretty significant,” Parsons said.

Rep. Tom McCall, an Elberton Republican, questioned what will happen if these companies are regulated out of existence.

“What are we going to do if we shut these industries down over a release?” McCall said.

Parsons said there’s no real risk of that happening.

“It is important that these releases be reported to the EPD,” Parsons said. “This is not going to shut them down. If they’re in violation of this code, then there are problems and they need to be addressed. But I don’t think this is going to shut people down.”

Companies that are in violation of the reporting requirement could be fined $20,000 a day and do risk losing their permit.

Parsons noted that the issue was an important to many different players – not the least of which was Gov. Brian Kemp, who has been actively involved since last fall.