CHICAGO — Both U.S. senators from Illinois and a Chicago-area congressman are calling for an independent investigation of the Trump administration's response to federal research that found the Sterigenics plant in west suburban Willowbrook is responsible for some of the nation's highest cancer risks from toxic air pollution.
People living near the sterilization plant deserve to know more about why political appointees at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency delayed releasing the findings to the public for eight months, U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth and Rep. Bill Foster wrote in a letter to Charles Sheehan, the agency's acting inspector general.
The three Democratic officials said they were responding to a recent Chicago Tribune story that revealed the Trump EPA and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner's administration were aware of the information in late December 2017. Emails obtained by the newspaper show the Rauner administration allowed officials at EPA headquarters in Washington to determine when and how the public was told about Sterigenics, which uses potent ethylene oxide gas to sterilize medical equipment, pharmaceutical drugs and food.
When the information was publicly released in late August, another federal agency said the cancer risks in communities near Sterigenics could be up to 6,400 cases per million people -- significantly higher than the EPA had initially estimated. Federal regulators generally target polluters when local cancer risks are greater than 100 in a million.
"An investigation is necessary to determine whether proper measures were taken to protect the lives of those affected by (ethylene oxide) emissions from the facility, to hold officials accountable and to assure that proper protocol is followed in the future if any similar situation arises," Durbin, Duckworth and Foster wrote.
Four days after the Tribune report, the Trump EPA issued a news release contending its actions have been misrepresented.
In June, after the EPA's regional office provided results from the May air monitoring near Sterigenics, "EPA leadership acted decisively, working with state and local governments and others to lower (ethylene oxide) emissions at the facility and communicate risk to the public in a responsible way," the agency wrote in a news release posted online Tuesday and headlined "EPA Sets the Record Straight After Being Misrepresented in Press."
You have free articles remaining.
A timeline of events included in the news release mirrors Tribune reporting on the issue. The release does not contradict the fact that federal and state officials delayed informing the public about abnormally high cancer risks near Sterigenics for eight months.
The Tribune reported Friday that federal, state and local officials have done nothing to inform residents in two other Chicago suburbs about risks posed by the same chemical used by Sterigenics in Willowbrook.
More than 19,000 people live within areas at risk from ethylene oxide emitted by a Medline Industries facility near Interstate 94 in the southwest corner of Waukegan, according to the EPA's latest National Air Toxics Assessment.
Another facility in Lake County could pose even greater risks than Sterigenics or Medline. Federal records show Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee released 6,412 pounds of ethylene oxide in 2014 -- more than either Sterigenics or Medline did during the same period. Officials confirmed the only reason Vantage wasn't included in the air toxics assessment is that someone at the state level failed to provide the facility's ethylene oxide emissions to the report's authors.
"This is simply outrageous," said Durbin, who along with Duckworth and Rep. Brad Schneider have called for a Sterigenics-level investigation in Lake County.
Sterigenics, Medline and Vantage all say their emissions are well below federal limits. The EPA has not updated its regulations to reflect a long-delayed 2016 review that found ethylene oxide is far more dangerous than previously thought.