Gurnee mayoral candidates debate on village's authority over ETO-emitting factory
The two candidates vying to be Gurnee's next mayor disagree on how well the village has addressed concerns about the cancer-causing gas ethylene oxide and what steps they can take going forward.
Village board member and mayoral candidate Thomas Hood maintains the village has done much by working with lawmakers who crafted new regulations regarding ETO, partnering with other municipalities to do expanded testing and keeping residents in the loop with 42 news updates so far.
David Weinstein, however, said the village has "done nothing" about Vantage Specialty Chemicals, a Gurnee-based manufacturer that uses ETO as a sterilizing agent and releases emissions into the air.
"I would exercise will and leadership and I would close, at a minimum, I would close Vantage down," Weinstein said at a joint Daily Herald editorial board endorsement interview last week.
Weinstein, a lawyer, said he would use the village's home rule authority to shut Vantage down and protect the health of residents.
But Hood, who also is a lawyer, said attempts to shut Vantage down would land the village in legal trouble and run counter to the advice of attorneys. Last year, the village hired a Chicago-based law firm to provide analysis on whether Gurnee could use home rule to create ordinances banning ethylene oxide.
Dennis Walsh, of Klein, Thorpe & Jenkins Ltd., wrote in a Feb. 17, 2020, letter that home rule authority is in the state constitution with the idea that local problems are usually best addressed at the local level of government. But, because air pollution travels, it has largely fallen to the state to regulate it, Walsh said, and Illinois courts traditionally forbid local authorities from regulating matters better suited for the state.
"Legal consequences could potentially be hundreds of thousands of dollars of legal fees that could potentially damage rewards against us that could affect the rest of the village," Hood said.
Along with Vantage, two other suburban manufacturers -- Medline in Waukegan and Sterigenics in Willowbrook -- have faced public scrutiny over their use of ETO. Sterigenics was shut down by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency in February 2019 after air pollution tests there revealed extreme day-to-day fluctuations in levels of ethylene oxide, the highest levels recorded at that time. In September, company officials said the Willowbrook plant would not reopen, citing the "unstable legislative and regulatory landscape in Illinois."
After the state and federal government both declined to conduct tests near Vantage and Medline, Lake County, Gurnee and Waukegan implemented their own air-testing program and shared the cost. The Illinois EPA funded the second and third phases. In prior reports, representatives for the two companies have argued while they released ETO, the amount did not exceed existing regulations.
Over the course of the testing period, a measure said to be the most stringent in the nation regarding ETO emissions was signed into state law. As a result, Vantage and Medline upgraded their emission controls, which company officials said will eliminate 99.9% of all ethylene oxide used in their processes.