'He's signing our death sentence': Ruling means Sterigenics plant could reopen

Amid outrage from some residents, a DuPage judge approved a consent order that would allow the Sterigenics plant in Willowbrook to reopen if it meets strict standards controlling emissions.

"What I believe is not important. What I must do is to follow the law," Judge Paul Fullerton said Friday, adding he would sign an agreement between Sterigenics, the Illinois attorney general and DuPage County state's attorney.

The plant that sterilizes medical equipment using ethylene oxide, a toxic gas, was closed in February by the state after the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in 2018 found an elevated cancer risk for people living nearby.

"He's signing our death sentence," Willowbrook resident Melissa Alvarado said aloud in the courtroom, and other homeowners echoed her dismay.

Numerous people in the area surrounding the plant have reported suffering from cancers they say is linked to ethylene oxide exposure.

Sterigenics representatives said the company has followed state and federal law and kept emissions at legal levels.

State and county officials stressed Friday that the plant would stay closed until it installed new emissions capture and control systems that must be approved by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

"This is not over - Sterigenics should not be doing a high-five," House Republican Leader Jim Durkin of Willow Springs said. "No one should be concerned that these doors are opening. The fight will continue."

Durkin said he intends to file legislation Friday giving home-rule municipalities the authority "to ban a product which is unsafe like ethylene oxide the same way municipalities are allowed to ban alcohol."

A spokeswoman said Gov. J.B. Pritzker is pleased Durkin and colleagues were "proposing a solution to strengthen their original legislation. He looks forward to immediately reviewing the measure, and he will support it unless there are constitutional concerns," Jordan Abudayyeh said.

"From the outset of his term, the governor has focused on protecting these families, including the Illinois EPA's seal order in February to shut down Sterigenics' operations," she added.

Prolonged exposure to ethylene oxide, a colorless, flammable gas, can cause cancers such as leukemia, according to the National Cancer Institute.

"We are angry, upset and disheartened," resident Lauren Kaeseberg said. "Sterigenics need to go. We won't stop until we see that sign off the building and they are out of our community."

Willowbrook Mayor Frank Trilla said he was consulting with neighboring villages over seeking to take over the Sterigenics property by eminent domain.

Meanwhile, Sterigenics attorney Gerard Kelly said delays in reopening the plant was harmful to hospitals and health care facilities. "Everyone knows someone who has benefitted from safe medical equipment sterilized with ethylene oxide. People who need medical implements cannot wait," he said.

Attorneys for Willowbrook, Darien, Burr Ridge and Hinsdale, towns surrounding Sterigenics, argued the company should be subject to continuous air monitoring and a standard for safe ethylene oxide levels near the plant be established.

Attorney Andrew Acker said Sterigenics officials may be saying "trust us, if we see high levels of ethylene oxide, we'll do something," but that's no guarantee.

The consent order strengthens a state law passed in June that imposes strict requirements for ethylene oxide emissions, Attorney General Kwame Raoul and DuPage State's Attorney Robert Berlin said in a joint statement. Nothing in the consent order guarantees the facility will reopen in the immediate future "or that it will reopen at all," they said.

Republican state Sen. John Curran, a co-sponsor of the law, was critical of the ruling. "This consent order goes through without any accountability for past transgressions by Sterigenics," he said.

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  Willowbrook residents Lauren Kaeseberg, left, and Margie Donnell talk about their concerns about harmful emissions from the Sterigenics plant Friday outside the DuPage County Judicial Center. as Willowbrook Mayor Frank Trilla listens. Marni Pyke/
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