The Chicago Tribune has just released a bombshell exposé alleging that officials in the Trump and Rauner administrations knew that ethylene oxide gas emissions from Willowbrook’s Sterigenics plant were likely responsible for some of the highest cancer risks in the country, yet kept the information from the public for eight months.
“Exceeding Our Typical Upper Limit of Cancer Risk Acceptability”
The Chicago Tribune obtained a copy of a letter, dated Dec. 22, 2017, that was sent to a Sterigenics executive by Ed Nam, director of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Air and Radiation Division for the Chicago region. Also carbon copied on the letter was Julie Armitage, Chief of the Illinois EPA’s Bureau of Air, a state-run agency.
In the letter, Nam outlined the preliminary results of an EPA analysis linking the company’s emissions of ethylene oxide – a gas that Sterigenics uses to sterilize medical instruments, pharmaceutical drugs, and food – to unusually high cancer risks in the Willowbrook area. Nam wrote that “EPA has calculated a cancer risk of approximately 1,000 in a million at the nearest residence, exceeding our typical upper limit of cancer risk acceptability.” As the Tribune noted, federal regulars typically target polluters when local cancer risks exceed 100 in a million.
Based upon air samples subsequently collected in May 2018, however, analysts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concluded that the cancer risks from breathing the Willowbrook facility’s ethylene oxide emissions were orders of magnitude greater than these initial estimates: up to 6,400 per million, or more than six cases of cancer for every 1,000 people.
Public Not Alerted, Illinois EPA Issued Permit
Despite what the EPA claims were excessive cancer risks associated with the plant’s emissions, the general public was not alerted until eight months later, on Aug. 21, 2018, when the Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry issued a report.
Instead, Nam struck a more conciliatory note in his letter to Sterigenics, saying that “EPA would like to provide Sterigenics with the opportunity to review our modeling and to suggest improvements for accuracy.”
Additionally, the Illinois EPA quietly issued a permit to Sterigenics allowing the company to install new pollution-control equipment voluntarily. Critics noted that the permit would make it more difficult for authorities to pursue legal action against Sterigenics. To do so, authorities would need to show that the company’s fixes had failed to eliminate the health risks associated with ethylene oxide – which would stand in stark contrast to claims that Sterigenics is already making.
According a statement on the company’s website, “Sterigenics’ Willowbrook facility operates safely today as it has throughout its history.” The website goes on to cast doubt on the EPA’s earlier conclusions about the cancer risks posed by the facility, alleging that recent testing found that its newly installed pollution-control equipment has significantly reduced emissions of carcinogenic ethylene oxide gas.
“Uncontrolled” Amounts of Gas Released for Thirty Years
Regardless of Sterigenics’ claims about operating “safely…throughout its history,” federal officials note that the Willowbrook plant has been releasing uncontrolled amounts of ethylene oxide gas from building vents for more than thirty years (though it is worth noting that the EPA did not declare that ethylene oxide poses long-term cancer risks until 2016, following a decade-long analysis of peer-reviewed scientific studies).
Moreover, according to the EPA’s Aug. 24 National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA), Willowbrook and its surrounding suburbs are among only a few dozen communities nationwide where higher-than-allowed cancer risks are the result of toxic air pollution. In the majority of the other cities studied, most of the elevated cancer risks stemmed from ethylene oxide exposure as well.
Asked why Willowbrook residents and workers were not immediately warned about the area’s heightened risks, spokespeople for both the federal and state agencies denied that they were providing cover for Sterigenics at the expense of the general populace, instead arguing that they delayed informing the public because they wanted to make sure that the EPA’s initial estimates were accurate.
“Verifying emissions is a critical step in NATA development,” said Jeff Kelley, director of the EPA’s regional communications office. He claimed that the 2017 letter was intended to give Sterigenics the opportunity to respond to the EPA’s concerns before the agency’s analysis was made public.
And for the Illinois EPA’s part, spokeswoman Kim Biggs said that “Without additional analysis from USEPA, IEPA was not in a position to take action.”
“Immediate” Injunctive Relief?
Such action may be forthcoming, though perhaps not on a quick enough timetable for concerned Willowbrook residents.
On Oct. 2, Gov. Bruce Rauner instructed the Illinois EPA to refer an enforcement action against Sterigenics to the Illinois Attorney General’s Office seeking “immediate injunctive relief” against Sterigenics. Such an action would order the company to discontinue operations that could result in any emissions of ethylene oxide gas pending a complete review of the risk to the public.
According to Attorney General Lisa Madigan, however, the injunctive relief may not be so “immediate,” as her office cannot make an effective legal case against Sterigenics without information that only the Illinois or federal EPA could provide. “We are prepared to move forward in court,” said Madigan, “and have told IEPA what evidence is necessary to shut the site down.”
Meanwhile, following the EPA’s Sept. 28 meeting with Illinois officials and community representatives, an Illinois EPA spokesperson concluded that “it is evident that additional weeks or months will pass before US EPA will be in a position to provide an updated risk assessment and propose any resulting changes to relevant regulations.”
Sterigenics and Rauner: A History
Rauner’s recent demands for Sterigenics to shut down its Willowbrook facility struck many of his critics as something of an about-face for the governor. Immediately following the initial reports about the elevated cancer risks in Willowbrook, Rauner claimed that the Sterigenics plant operated well within the law.
“This is not an emergency,” Rauner told reporters on Aug. 28. “My understanding is that particular company has followed all the regulations and the proper procedures.”
Rauner appointees later refused to provide key documents about the Sterigenics plant to Madigan’s office, forcing her to request the records under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Chicago Tribune has previously uncovered past financial links between Rauner and Sterigenics. In 2011, Sterigenics was bought out by GTCR, the private equity firm that Rauner and a colleague formed during the late 1990s. Rauner retired as chairman of GTCR in 2012 and has claimed that his current investments have been delegated to a power of attorney.
Sterigenics is now owned by Sotera, a Cleveland-based venture between GTCR and Warburg Pincus, another private equity firm that acquired a majority stake in 2015.
Rauner insists that he no longer has a stake in Sterigenics, having sold his interest as part of the 2015 deal. His office has not produced documents showing the transaction took place, however, and this claim runs contrary to the most recent statement of his economic interests.
There are more than 19,000 residents, four schools, and one daycare center within one mile of the Sterigenics facility in Willowbrook.
It remains in operation.