Suburban Republicans object to Sterigenics settlement

SPRINGFIELD - A group of suburban Republican lawmakers is calling on state and local officials to reverse course on a consent order that would allow a sterilization company linked to increased cancer rates to reopen its Willowbrook plant.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin on Wednesday filed a motion to enter a consent order with Sterigenics. Next Wednesday, a judge will decide if the consent order can move forward, lifting an existing seal order signed by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency in February to prevent Sterigenics from operating.

In August 2018, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, reported in a letter there was an "elevated cancer risk" for anyone who lives near or works in the facility.

Per the terms of the agreement filed Wednesday, Sterigenics can reopen when it installs equipment to reduce emissions of cancer-causing ethylene oxide to allowable limits signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker last month. The IEPA must approve a building permit for that equipment.

But Sen. John Curran of Downers Grove, Rep. Deanne Mazzochi of Elmhurst and Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs - all suburban Republicans who helped pass the law on the limits - each agreed the settlement allowed too much for the company, which they believe should be prohibited from using ethylene oxide in the state.

"It's troubling that they're in a rush to lock into the settlement agreement that, number one, Sterigenics admits no fault or wrongdoing when there is evidence contrary to that," Curran said in a phone interview.

Pritzker signed the Matt Haller Act, Senate Bill 1852, in June, prohibiting ethylene oxide sterilization facilities from operating in Illinois unless they capture 100% of all ethylene oxide emissions within the facility and reduce ethylene oxide emissions to 0.2 parts per million. It also mandates emissions and air quality testing.

"The proposed consent order, combined with the strict regulations in the new law signed last month, will enable the state to act quickly to hold Sterigenics accountable for violating Illinois' emissions limits," Raoul said in a statement.

The attorney general's office characterized the consent order as "a stronger legal tool" than the current seal order, which is being challenged in the courts. Ethylene oxide emissions at the facility would have to decrease to 85 pounds per year. It had been 2,840 to 7,340 pounds per year from 2006 to 2018. The settlement also creates fines of $400 to $1,000 per day if Sterigenics breaches the contract, and it authorizes the court to hold Sterigenics in contempt of court in such situations.

Curran objected to the consent order's lack of punitive fines for Sterigenics. He said a $300,000 escrow payment required of Sterigenics to fund projects "designed to benefit the environment in the State of Illinois" was too small and should have been classified as a fine.

The suburban lawmakers also agreed that local voices were left out of the negotiation process.

"They (Sterigenics) don't deserve the any convenient path to begin operations again," Durkin said in a phone interview, noting he would prefer the attorney general to defend the seal order preventing Sterigenics' operation. "Let a court of law make that decision," he said.

Curran noted the filing came one day before a judge was set to consider a motion from four local communities to be added as a party in the litigation. Whether those municipalities - Burr Ridge, Hinsdale, Willowbrook and Darien - can be added will be decided when the judge rules on the consent order next week.

When that hearing convenes, Mazzochi said in a statement, she plans to file a "friend of the court" brief to discuss the legislative intent behind Senate Bill 1852, which she said should have kept Sterigenics closed.

Pritzker's office said the consent order creates "detailed enforceable mandates" to ensure "swift judicial oversight" of Sterigenics.

"The administration made it clear to members of the General Assembly that Governor Pritzker would be willing to sign any measure, up to and including a ban, on the use of ethylene oxide in the state of Illinois," the governor's office said in a statement. "Members of the General Assembly drafted legislation that did not prohibit the use of ethylene oxide but did create the most stringent regulations around its use in the country."

Curran, who has filed two separate ethylene oxide bans in his time in the General Assembly, said he was happy to hear of the governor's commitment to signing such a proposal.

"I am very happy to see that he finally does support a ban, and I'm going to continue to pursue that," he said.

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