After spending the past month downplaying cancer risks from toxic air pollution in west suburban Willowbrook, Gov. Bruce Rauner on Tuesday joined a chorus of elected officials calling for the shutdown of a Sterigenics International facility co-owned by his former private equity firm.
Fellow Republicans from DuPage County have been clamoring for Rauner to take more aggressive action against the company, which for more than three decades has used highly potent ethylene oxide gas to sterilize medical instruments, pharmaceutical drugs and food near densely populated neighborhoods and several schools.
As recently as Friday, the most the Republican governor would say about Sterigenics was that he had instructed the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to launch an investigation. But Rauner changed course after the weekend, ordered his staff to refer the case to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, the state’s chief lawyer, then urged the Democrat to seek a court order that would close the Willowbrook facility until a separate federal investigation “assures the community that resumed operations would not present an elevated health risk.”
Rauner’s sudden reversal comes as local politicians, many of whom like the governor are on the Nov. 6 ballot, face a fury of complaints about a federal report that revealed unusually high cancer risks from ethylene oxide pollution in traditionally Republican communities near Sterigenics. Citizen groups that quickly organized against the company garnered even more attention when Burr Ridge resident Andrea Thome and her husband, the former Chicago White Sox slugger Jim Thome, added their voices to the anti-Sterigenics movement.
“There is a level of anger in the community that I’ve never seen before,” said longtime state Rep. Jim Durkin of Darien, the House Republican leader and one of several DuPage County officials calling for Sterigenics to be shut down. “This area is populated by young families who are moving here from the city. I know people within a half mile of the facility who feel they aren’t getting any answers and they don’t feel anybody is standing up on their behalf.”
The Tribune previously reported that quick action is unlikely for a variety of reasons, including steps the Rauner administration took before and after the Willowbrook cancer report was released to the public in late August.
Nearly two months earlier, the Illinois EPA responded to the then-secret report by quietly giving Sterigenics a permit to voluntarily install new pollution-control equipment, making it more difficult for authorities to pursue legal action against the company unless it can be proven the fix has failed to eliminate health risks from ethylene oxide pollution.
Rauner appointees later refused to provide Madigan’s office with key documents about the Willowbrook facility, required the attorney general’s staff to request the records under the Freedom of Information Act and delayed providing the information until after the Tribune inquired about the dispute on Sept. 20. Even now, Madigan said, the state can’t make an effective case against Sterigenics without more air quality monitoring in surrounding neighborhoods, expert analysis of the results and other information that only the state or federal EPA can provide.
“We are prepared to move forward in court and have told IEPA what evidence is necessary to shut the site down,” Madigan said. “IEPA has not provided any evidence, but we will immediately evaluate any information the agency provides.”
With Election Day just a few weeks away, locally elected officials have repeatedly urged state and federal regulators to reassure the public they are safe. Rauner, along with top Trump administration officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have stressed there is no evidence Sterigenics poses the type of immediate threats seen in some work settings. But the company has been releasing ethylene oxide into surrounding communities since the early 1980s, federal records show, and the health risks involve diseases that can take years to develop, including breast cancer, leukemia and lymphoma.
Based on air samples collected in May, an arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined the cancer risks from breathing ethylene oxide pollution in southeast DuPage communities could be orders of magnitude higher than initially estimated: up to 6,400 per million, or more than six cases of cancer for every 1,000 people. The U.S. EPA generally targets polluters when local cancer risks exceed 100 in a million.
The pre-election political stakes are high enough that the Trump administration weighed in on the issue last week, dispatching a presidential appointee in charge of the EPA’s air division to promise the agency will conduct the type of neighborhood air monitoring that Madigan and others have been calling for during the past month.
Sterigenics said a controlled test of emissions, conducted in late September by consultants hired by the company, failed to detect any ethylene oxide leaving its pair of buildings in Willowbrook.
“We are committed to doing the right thing by our community but closing facilities that emit limited, regulated (ethylene oxide) emissions is not the right answer,” the company said in a statement, calling Rauner’s latest reaction “ill-considered.” “If necessary, we will take all appropriate actions to protect the hospitals and patients that depend on our facility.”
Rauner’s ties to the company date to 2011, when a private equity firm he co-founded bought Sterigenics for $675 million and quickly expanded its operations. The governor’s most recent state ethics statement, filed in May, shows he retains an interest in the fund used to buy the sterilization company, which in 2015 sold a majority stake to another private equity firm.
On Friday morning, Rauner told radio station WBEZ he no longer has a stake in Sterigenics. Spokespersons for his campaign and government office later told the Tribune that Rauner sold his interest as part of the 2015 deal but have not produced documents showing the transaction took place.
“We will get the truth about what has been emitted so far,” Rauner told the radio station, “and what needs to change in the future.”
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October 2, 2018 at 06:21PM