The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s mission statement opens nobly: “The mission of EPA is to protect human health and the environment.” To which exasperated residents of Chicago’s western suburbs would add, “If and when we at the agency get around to it.”
That’s because the greater the public’s alarm about emissions from the Sterigenics plant in Willowbrook, the more the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has piddled and fiddled. Left in the lurch: the 19,200 people who live within a mile of the facility.
Sterigenics uses ethylene oxide, a chemical on the federal government’s list of carcinogens, to sterilize medical instruments. But as the U.S. EPA’s growing pile of air quality measurements and other evidence have documented emissions issues at the facility, the feds haven’t brought themselves to do much of anything. Hence the testy headline on a Tribune editorial last Friday: “Time’s up, EPA. Solve the Sterigenics problem.”
That very day, the EPA did act — although it wasn’t the U.S. EPA, the agency we had hoped to roust from slumber. No, Friday’s action came from Gov. J.B. Prizker’s Illinois EPA. As the Tribune’s Michael Hawthorne summarized: Invoking rarely used authority in state law, Illinois EPA Director John Kim prohibited Sterigenics from pumping ethylene oxide gas into massive chambers used to sterilize medical equipment, pharmaceutical drugs, spices and food. Kim’s order cited a federal study that said the chemical is so toxic that even tiny concentrations routinely leaking from the company’s two buildings pose a significant health risk.
The state’s move doesn’t resolve the essential question here: To what actual extent does the Sterigenics facility endanger its neighbors? A faster-moving U.S. EPA might by now have provided the answer. Those neighbors are understandably anxious and impatient.
The state’s action Friday likely has three effects:
- People who live or work near Sterigenics have at least a temporary reprieve from emissions. Those residents are still reeling from a recent disclosure: Air tests done in November and December detected spikes in ethylene oxide even higher than levels detected before Sterigenics installed pollution control equipment last summer to take care of the problem.
- Sterigenics will fight Friday’s order in court. “The Illinois EPA’s actions to suspend operations at the Sterigenics Willowbrook facility are indefensible,” the company said in a statement. “Unilaterally preventing a business that is operating in compliance with all state permits and regulations from carrying out its vital function sets a dangerous precedent.”
- Public and political pressure will intensify on the U.S. EPA to do more than continually plead for time. Are current emissions standards adequate? Why are ethylene oxide levels near Sterigenics what they are? And that essential question: To what extent does the Sterigenics facility endanger its neighbors?
Earlier this month the U.S. EPA’s top air quality official, William Wehrum, said samples analyzed so far suggest that on some days air monitors in the vicinity of Sterigenics are registering other, unknown sources of ethylene oxide. He said his agency needs, yes, more time to assess the dangers, determine Sterigenics’ responsibility for the emissions, and figure out how to limit them.
To Mr. Wehrum and his colleagues: Nobody wants the U.S. EPA to act rashly based on scientific supposition or political outcry rather than evidence. But your agency has known for a long time that Sterigenics had ethylene oxide issues. Be methodical, but “methodical” isn’t a synonym for “sluggish.” Would you accelerate your pace as urgently as if you and yours lived within a mile of this facility?
We applaud the Illinois EPA for making a provocative move that forces others to respond. Because as we wrote in frustration Friday: What’s troubling about the U.S. EPA’s handling of the Sterigenics case is that the agency’s only action up until now — apart from testing — has been to put off deciding what to do.
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