Court keeps open Smyrna medical equipment sterilization plant

    Toxic gas emissions at Smyrna's Sterigenics plant caused a community outcry last year, but the plant will continue operating, at least until a lawsuit with Cobb County works its way through the court. Amie Brink/Web MD

    A Sterigenics facility that uses a carcinogenic gas to sterilize medical equipment will continue operations until a legal dispute with Cobb County is settled, following a federal court ruling this week.

    “We will continue our safe sterilization operations at the facility in the interest of public health,” the company said in a statement Wednesday. “We are confident the legal proceedings will ultimately confirm our legal rights to continue those operations beyond the litigation for future public health needs.”

    Adding to the pressure for the plant to keep operating despite community objections, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asked state officials on March 22 to let the plant sterilize medical equipment for use in the fight against the new coronavirus.

    The south Cobb County community near the Sterigenics plant grew concerned about its operations last year after a report from WebMD and Georgia Health News revealed nearby neighbors were exposed to the toxic  chemical ethylene oxide.

    Long-term exposure to ethylene oxide increases the risk of cancer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. A Covington plant owned by a different company also uses ethylene oxide for medical sterilization.

    Public outcry surrounding the plants was fierce last year, with hundreds of neighbors attending meetings and joining online groups with an aim of stopping plant emissions. The Georgia House and Senate unanimously passed legislation to place new restrictions on companies that use the gas. 

    Sterigenics voluntarily shut down in late August to install new equipment designed to reduce emissions. In September, Cobb County officials ordered the company to stay closed for a review of its fire protection standards and certificate of occupancy.

    On March 25, Cobb County Commission Chairman Mike Boyce issued an emergency order allowing Sterigenics to operate the plant temporarily, citing the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Five days later, Sterigenics filed suit against the county, alleging officials manufactured “a sham claim” to shut down the facility “for political purposes, in response to activists’ unfounded environmental claims.”

    On April 1, U.S. District Judge William Ray II issued an order allowing Sterigenics to operate unrestricted for two weeks. The court extended the  Wednesday, until a final ruling.

    During that time, “Sterigenics shall be free to conduct its normal operations at the facility to sterilize medical products without interference,” the order says.

    The decision to extend operations was mutual, according to a statement from the county.

    “The county has mutually agreed with Sterigenics to maintain the status quo under the existing Temporary Restraining Order (TRO), in light of the ongoing pandemic health crisis and emergency orders,” the statement says. “A hearing on the TRO will occur at some point in the future regarding the operating status of the facility and its necessary occupancy and hazardous classifications.”

    Rep. Erick Allen, a south Cobb Democrat who vigorously pushed legislation to sharpen ethylene oxide regulations, said he’s not surprised at the order, but he doesn’t think it will last forever.

    “This was expected considering the county’s position and the closure of the courts during the pandemic. I feel once the courts are back open and all the facts are presented, the decision will be different,” he said.

    “Either way, I know this community and our resolve to see them properly regulated or relocated will not fade or waver,” he added.

    The fight will continue, vowed Janet Rau, president of Stop Sterigenics Georgia, a citizens group dedicated to stopping the emissions.

    “We are hopeful that the truth about this company will prevail in a court of law once and for all,” she said. And while we understand the difficult position that the court is in during this unprecedened crisis, we continue to believe that the reopening of this facility with such limited oversight is a truly unwise decision.”

    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.