Lawmakers ready bills for ethylene oxide transparency, coal ash fee hike

    The Sterigenics plant Smyrna was closed last fall after publicity that it leaked a dangerous amount of ethylene oxide gas. It is operating again as federal authorities pushed for it to resume sterilizing medical supplies in the fight against COVID-19. Courtesy Georgia Health News

    Several environmental bills – including a high-profile ethylene oxide spill reporting measure – have been teed back up in a House committee for action.

    The House Natural Resources and Environment Committee heard initial testimony from state senators on a handful of environmental measures that cleared the Senate by Crossover Day.

    It was one of the latest signs that lawmakers will take up some of the bills that had at one point appeared doomed for this year when the legislative session was abruptly suspended because of the COVID-19 outbreak. The budget, which will be cut by 11%, is still expected to be the main focus when the session resumes on June 15.

    One closely watched bill would require facilities using the cancer-causing chemical ethylene oxide, which is used to sterilize medical equipment, to report any leaks that violate their permit to the state within 24 hours. That information will then be posted online for the public to see.

    “One of the problems we still have had, though, is there still are leaks and there still are spills and what citizens were having to do is constantly send an open records request to EPD to find out about these violations of the permits,” said Sen. Brian Strickland, a McDonough Republican who serves as one of the governor’s floor leaders and who is the bill’s sponsor.

    “And that’s not good for anybody,” he added. “It’s not good the citizens to have to constantly submit open records requests to know what’s going on in their backyard and it’s not good for EPD to have to constantly deal with open records requests either.”

    The bill, SB 426, passed unanimously in the Senate. The House also signed off on its version of the same proposal, although some House lawmakers had pressed earlier for a more scaled down proposal.

    The leak information is now being posted on the state Environmental Protection Division website. To find the information, select the facility of interest and look for any incidents reported. For example, Sterigenics in Atlanta reported a small leak in April.

    “While this may already be the practice, it codifies that practice but hopefully it restores some trust for the citizens in these communities in EPD,” Strickland said.

    The House Natural Resources and Environment Committee did not take a vote Friday. Other bills handed off to House lawmakers include a proposal to increase the fee for dumping coal ash in Georgia – bringing it in line with other trash – and banning landfills near the Satilla River in southeast Georgia.

    “You could say that we’re subsidizing bringing in coal ash to the state and there are lot of people in our state who are now becoming more and more concerned about this,” said Sen. William Ligon, a Brunswick Republican who is sponsoring both the landfill bills.

    Banning any landfills near the Satilla River has a similar aim, although other lawmakers questioned why the same protection is not being extended to other waterways. A 230-acre landfill has been proposed for near the river in Branley County, which locals are trying to stop.

    “What we’re seeing is that outside groups are looking to come in and open up large-scale landfills to bring in garbage and other materials and coal ash from outside of the state of Georgia,” Ligon said. “And Georgia should not become the dumping ground for other people’s trash and refuse and waste.”

    Jill Nolin
    Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.