Residents, lawmakers call for shutdown of Lake County factories using ethylene oxide
Days after Sterigenics Inc. announced it would close its Willowbrook factory amid months of controversy over its use of the toxic chemical ethylene oxide, Lake County residents and lawmakers are demanding a similar fate for a pair of facilities emitting the same cancer-causing gas.
"It's clear that these facilities have no regard for emitting a cancer-causing chemical into the air," said state Rep. Sam Yingling, a Democrat from Grayslake. "If they fail to shut down themselves, then the state will enact legislation that will shut them down."
The factories, Medline Industries in Waukegan and Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee, have been the target of lawsuits by residents who say the companies' ethylene oxide emissions gave them cancer. Like Sterigenics, Medline and Vantage use ethylene oxide as a sterilizing agent for medical equipment.
Calls to close the plants came Wednesday during a packed town hall meeting on the issue hosted by state Sen. Melinda Bush at the College of Lake County in Grayslake.
"I'm thrilled to have so many people here to get their questions answered," said Bush, a Democrat from Grayslake.
Representatives of Vantage and Medline said the companies are installing new controls approved by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency that will eliminate 99.9% of all ethylene oxide used in their processes.
"Medline's top priority is the safety of our employees and the communities that we operate in," company spokesman Jesse Greenberg said.
"We take this matter very seriously because not only do we work in the community, many of us also call this area home," Vantage Gurnee site manager Drew Richardson added. "Recent air monitoring by Lake County confirms that our facility is not a significant source of (ethylene oxide) relative to background levels."
But residents at the town hall said the chemical, which is colorless, tasteless and mostly odorless, may have been poisoning them for years.
"What's top of mind to me is children, including infants and toddlers, who will have the longest-term impacts," said Pat O'Keefe of Waukegan.
Some questioned why the IEPA couldn't shut down the factories.
"Sterigenics was shut down," said Chris Smith of Gurnee. "I'm not quite sure why everything is keeping status quo with Vantage in Gurnee."
"Willowbrook had the right result," Gurnee resident Melanie Brown added. "If you can seal Sterigenics, you can seal Medline."
IEPA Director John Kim said it's not that simple. He said the legislative process is much faster than EPA rule-making, and the IEPA is bound by the laws that created it.
"Much of the regulation of these air pollutants is done by federal standard, and that standard is outdated," Kim said. "We cannot do anything that we are not legally authorized to do."
According to IEPA data, Medline and Vantage have been issued violation notices more recently than Sterigenics -- Medline in 2012 and 2014 and Vantage in 2015 and 2016. Still, Kim said there's no specific number at which emissions of ethylene oxide from the factories have crossed a line.
"It's a very difficult situation because you don't have an enforceable number," he said.
For now, frustrated residents will have to seek legislative solutions rather than regulatory ones.
"We've been working hand-in-hand with the senator (Bush) and with other legislators to get legislation," said Tea Tanaka of the group Stop ETO in Lake County.