Residents still 'super angry' as Sterigenics closes Willowbrook plant for good
For a day, Willowbrook residents let themselves celebrate after months of being worried sick about pollution coming from a plant whose company announced Monday it would close permanently.
Officials with Sterigenics Co. blamed their exit from Willowbrook on an "unstable legislative and regulatory landscape in Illinois" that has "created an environment in which it is not prudent to maintain these critical sterilization operations."
Sterigenics used the toxic chemical ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment until the plant was shut down by the state in February amid pressure from lawmakers. Residents living near it say that air pollution caused numerous cases of cancer.
"Total disbelief" is how local activist Lauren Kaeseberg described her reaction to Sterigenics' decision as residents and federal, state and local leaders hugged and smiled outside the Willowbrook village hall.
"We're not going to not celebrate -- this is a huge victory. But we're super angry," Kaeseberg said. "For years, they've been poisoning people across our town."
Sterigenics officials said they have followed state and federal regulations and blamed "inaccurate and unfounded claims."
The issue of ethylene oxide emissions is far from settled, however. Concerns about air pollution from the chemical at facilities in Gurnee and Waukegan are expected to lead to additional legislation this fall.
"We do not feel that any emission of ethylene oxide in our community or other residential communities should be considered safe and appropriate," Willowbrook homeowner Ivan Harrison said earlier Monday. His 16-year-old daughter, Yasmeen, has survived four bouts with cancer that the family contends in a lawsuit is caused by exposure to ethylene oxide.
State agencies that regulate health and the environment turned a blind eye and should be held to account, said Tom O'Toole, a four-year cancer survivor who lived next to Sterigenics.
"I have five friends that all have cancer related to ethylene oxide. It's not a coincidence," O'Toole said.
Sterigenics also said it was unable to reach an agreement to renew the lease on the building it uses on Quincy Street in Willowbrook.
The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in 2018 found an elevated cancer risk for people living near Sterigenics.
"Sterigenics should never have been allowed to operate in a residential community in the first place," said attorney Shawn Collins, who represents the Harrisons.
Prolonged exposure to ethylene oxide, a colorless, flammable gas, can cause cancers such as leukemia, according to the National Cancer Institute.
A state law passed in June 2019 imposed strict regulations on the release and capture of ethylene oxide. In July, however, a consent order reached between Sterigenics, Attorney General Kwame Raoul and DuPage State's Attorney Robert Berlin sought to tighten what they called a loophole in the law by allowing the plant to reopen under tight emissions restrictions.
The potential reopening of Sterigenics caused friction between officials, and local lawmakers filed additional legislation intended to keep the plant closed.
Fears about pollution accelerated Sept. 23 when the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency issued a construction permit allowing Sterigenics to install new emissions control equipment.
Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker said "Sterigenics' decision today represents a significant development, demonstrating that Illinoisans will come together to protect the health and well-being of all our residents -- which has been my goal from the beginning."
Republican State Sen. John Curran, who represents communities near Sterigenics, called the news "tremendous" and added, "The risks involved with this facility reopening were simply too great to the public health."
Republican House Leader Jim Durkin added, "Sterigenics got the message that we were never going to let them reopen their doors and poison our communities again."
Willowbrook Mayor Frank Trilla permitted himself to exhale Monday evening as happy residents surrounded him. "Look around," he said. "There's honest joy everywhere. Before you could cut the anxiety with a knife."