Legislators indefinitely postponed the legislative session just as we were making significant progress on several environmental issues. This postponement was alarming, as the outcome of these bills will have a substantial impact on public health:

Ethylene oxide

In 2019, residents in Covington, Smyrna, and South Fulton became aware of ongoing ethylene oxide releases in their communities. Ethylene oxide is a toxic chemical that has been linked to cancer according to a report by WebMD and Georgia Health News. Testing done by the EPA found elevated ethylene oxide levels, especially at the Sterigenics plant in Smyrna. Currently, the state only requires reporting when more than 10 pounds of the chemical is emitted over 24 hours. The state also relies on companies to self-report their emissions. A team of legislators introduced bills to change this, requiring reporting when any ethylene oxide is emitted, with no acceptable amount that can go unreported. The new legislation also requires companies to report releases within 24 hours, makes companies’ operating permits contingent on that reporting, and requires a notice be posted on the Georgia Environmental Protection Division website. As these bills await further debate, a federal judge has granted Sterigenics to temporarily resume full operations and continue releasing the chemical at its Smyrna plant.

Still, the question should be asked what took lawmakers so long to act and why wasn’t there a preventative measure already in place, considering the dangers that ethylene oxide has on an exposed population? This was a tremendous failure at the local and state levels of governance, a failure compounded by the fact that there was an enormous lack of communication between companies like Sterigenics, the government and the public. Regarding Sterigenics, the leak occurred at the end of July, 2019 and was only reported almost a full month later, near the end of August, 2019. This meant that for a month, residents and workers were unaware that they might be breathing in carcinogens, adversely affecting their body and putting them at an elevated risk for cancer. 

But that’s not all. Perhaps worst of all, the lack of communications was legal. That’s right, it was entirely legal for Sterigenics and other businesses dealing with ethylene oxide to withhold critical information about the leak, putting thousands of nearby residents, employees and visitors at risk.

It’s a grim and terrifying reality that Georgia puts more value on businesses like Sterigenics being able to keep leaks quiet instead of informing the public and protecting at risk populations. This emphasis on protecting the bottom line over lives is also extending into government, as Governor Brian Kemp has asked state departments to cut their budgets in an effort to save money as Georgia’s tax policies of providing havens for corporations is eating into available funds. This means that government branches vital for ensuring public safety and health like the EPD are left with fewer resources and less ability to keep the public informed and protected.

So what can we do? There have been calls to shut down the plants entirely. In a perfect world, we would urge the same, having already lined up excellent employment opportunities for the workers at the ethylene oxide plants. However, this is not the situation and, recognizing that the plants play an important part in providing work and opportunity for those employed there, GCV believes that shutting the plants goes too far. However, we can take steps to ensure that residents and workers are more protected from leaks than ever before by ensuring the EPD is fully funded and passing legislation that requires companies to report leaks within a 24 hour period. This, combined with a more reliable way of providing information about hazardous leaks, would ensure the public is informed about any hazards and put at minimal risk in case of any future leaks or exposures. 

You can help make this a reality by supporting Senate Bill 426 and our friends at Stop Sterigenics GA who are helping to lead the fight against ethylene oxide exposure from Sterigenics and other large businesses in Georgia.

We’ll take the Biomass but leave the chemicals on the side!

A pair of power plants in northeast Georgia have been drawing a lot of attention. These wood burning plants have become notorious in local communities not only for the pollution and noise problems but also for a more harmful and sinister reason: releasing chemical poisons into the air.

Originally intended to burn forest products like remnants from clear cutting, the plants have also been burning chemically treated logs, including railroad ties treated with creosote. In the process, they’ve been releasing harmful toxins into the air, ground and water of local communities, threatening the health of residents and workers nearby, thanks to a 2016 federal rule change that allowed alternative fuel sources like railroad ties. In 2019, the EPD granted both plants permits to burn crossties for up to 20% of their fuel.

The effects have been devastating and can have long term health impacts on local residents and workers. The chemicals that are released by the power plant end up in the air of nearby communities but can also affect residents in the form of ash, poisoning the ground and local water supplies. This can have a dramatic effect, including one incident that resulted in a fish kill in Franklin. Farmers and residents nearby are forced to worry about the quality of their land and water, forcing expensive adaptations or risk losing their livelihoods.

That’s why we need to take action now. We need to let legislators know that they need to take action before the circumstances get out of control. Thankfully, there’s action that has been taken before the COVID pandemic spun the legislative session wild, and there’s still opportunities to protect our communities from the dangers of chemical railroad ties. Senate Bill 385 and House Bill 857 both tackle the issue of burning chemically treated wood. The House Bill has made major progress, having advanced to the second chamber, where it is in its second reading.

Stand for your families and communities: tell your legislators to support SB 385 and HB 857.