Senate takes turn at requiring ethylene oxide release transparency

    A state Senate 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

    The state Senate Natural Resources Committee moved forward on a plan to keep tabs on spills of a cancer-causing chemical Tuesday, despite concerns from some lawmakers and activists that the measure does not go far enough.

    Like legislation approved by a House panel Monday, Senate Bill 426 mandates any unauthorized release of the chemical be reported to the state Environmental Protection Division and requires spills of ethylene oxide greater than 10 pounds be posted on the EPD’s website.

    Sen. Brian Strickland, a Republican from Henry County and Gov. Brian Kemp’s floor leader, told the committee the proposed law can help reassure people who live near businesses that use ethylene oxide they can find out about spills.

    “What we’re doing with Senate Bill 426 is putting into code some assurances that will give the public more notice of what’s going on, hopefully provide more trust as we continue to learn more about ethylene oxide,” he said.

    Two metro Atlanta plants that use the chemical to sterilize medical equipment were at the center of a firestorm last summer when a report from WebMD and Georgia Health News revealed surrounding communities near Smyrna and Covington were contaminated by ethylene oxide. The Smyrna plant is run by Sterigenics and the Covington plant by BD.

    Janet Rau is the president of Stop Sterigenics Georgia, a citizens group dedicated to stopping the toxic emissions. She told the senate committee she wants any release to be posted to the EPD’s website, even those less than 10 pounds.

    “Everybody kind of got surprised this summer,” she said. “We didn’t know what was going on. We didn’t realize that this was in our area, but the EPD did. … They didn’t tell any local municipalities, they didn’t even tell the governor’s office. So the lack of transparency there, really, we can’t make any of this optional. It needs to be a requirement.”

    John Hitchins, a Smyrna resident who works in conservation, said the only way neighbors would know of a leak of less than 10 pounds per day would be through open records requests.

    “It shouldn’t be up to the citizens to have to file an open records request to find out how much toxin has been dumped into our air,” he said. “All we’re asking is to rebuild the trust and transparency in the process.”

    Strickland said the legislation can do a better job of protecting Georgians as is.

    “I believe it creates more confusion to have every single release posted to a website,” Strickland said. “I think it creates more issues and is counterproductive to what we’re trying to do here.”

    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.