Hundreds demand answers from EPA officials, closing of Sterigenics in Willowbrook
Willowbrook residents are demanding answers and the immediate closure of Sterigenics International, just two weeks after the Environmental Protection Agency acknowledged problems with its air testing.
Several hundred residents packed the large banquet room Thursday at Ashton Place to hear from state and local EPA officials, emergency officials and a citizens group aimed at shutting down the facility that uses the colorless gas ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment and food products, among other things.
Perhaps none was as pointed as Village President Frank Trilla.
"About 90 days ago, we changed as a village. We were informed that something was here we weren't aware of," Trilla said. "All I want to know is, are my people safe? Are we in danger now and are we going to be in danger in the future? And I'm counting on the EPA to let us know."
Similar concerns have been raised in Lake County, where health officials are seeking information and a meeting with state and federal environmental agencies regarding emissions of the potentially cancer-causing gas from businesses in Gurnee and Waukegan. That concern stems from the reported release of ethylene oxide at Medline Industries Inc. in Waukegan and Vantage Specialty Chemicals Inc. in Gurnee.
Sterigenics did not have a representative at Thursday night's meeting, but in a statement said it "safely uses EO in compliance with and better than regulations require" and that "a disruption in production would halt sterilization, negatively impacting public health in Illinois and beyond."
In Willowbrook, the nation's top air official, William Wehrum, the EPA's assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, tried to provide answers.
"We know for ourselves there are emissions of ethylene oxide from the Sterigenics facility," Wehrum said. "Our preliminary assessment is that that has created some elevated risk to people's health in the area around the facility and we see our job as to fully understand what the situation is, assessing all of the choices that are available for regressing the risk that exists and doing everything we can under the law and our powers of persuasion to get to a place where we've successfully addressed the issue."
But the process, he said, though it's being expedited, could still take several more months before environmental officials know exactly what is being emitted from the plant and in what quantities.
"In the relevant near future, and we're looking at early next year, we'll reach a point where we feel we have a really good grip on what the risks look like from this facility and that will arm us to know what we should do," Wehrum told the angry crowd. "And that will guide what we think we should do in the way of seeking, mandating or requiring additional emission reductions."
Members of Stop Sterigenics, a group that boasts more than 7,500 Facebook members, urged elected officials to ban the chemical and demanded the closure of the facility, which they say has been in frequent violation of environmental laws since 1989.
"Our community feels victimized not only by Sterigenics, but by the agencies and the officials who are supposed to protect us," spokeswoman Neringa Zymancius said.
Coming up, Stop Sterigenics has organized a protest at noon Dec. 15 outside Sterigenics headquarters in Oak Brook.