Months before politicians saturated Chicago television stations with commercials, lobbyists for the nation’s chemical industry bought two weeks of local airtime thanking Republican Congressman Peter Roskam for championing their priorities.
The little-noticed $209,000 TV ad buy, financed in late June by the American Chemistry Council, focused on Roskam’s votes favoring tax and health care policies that benefit its corporate members. But the ad takes on new meaning now that the Sterigenics sterilization facility just outside Roskam’s west suburban district is under fire for emitting ethylene oxide, a highly potent, cancer-causing gas made by Dow Chemical, Union Carbide, Shell and several other members of the trade group.
Two months after the chemical industry’s pro-Roskam ad began airing, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a report revealing that communities surrounding the Sterigenics facility in Willowbrook are among just a few dozen in the country facing alarmingly high cancer risks from toxic air pollution, most notably ethylene oxide emissions.
The EPA report, known as the National Air Toxics Assessment, has prompted a storm of complaints from neighbors and officials from both political parties who are urging environmental regulators to shut down Sterigenics. Erin Brockovich, the prominent national environmental activist, encouraged Americans this week on Facebook to sign a “Stop Sterigenics” petition.
Roskam’s supporters in the chemical industry have a dramatically different view.
Soon after the EPA released its report, the industry trade group quietly urged President Donald Trump’s administration to scuttle a stringent safety limit for ethylene oxide adopted in 2016 after more than a decade of debate. The agency relied heavily on the safety limit when it calculated its worrisome estimates of cancer risks in communities surrounding Sterigenics and other facilities across the nation that either manufacture or use the chemical.
Chemical companies are pushing the Trump EPA to declare that ethylene oxide is far less dangerous than the agency’s career staff and three separate panels of independent scientists determined. Industry-supported scientists have repeatedly downplayed animal research showing the chemical mutates DNA and studies of medical sterilization workers who suffered high rates of breast cancer, leukemia and lymphomas.
“The alleged elevated cancer risk … has already caused alarm in some communities around facilities with (ethylene oxide) emissions,” a top American Chemistry Council official wrote in a Sept. 20 letter to the EPA, reiterating the group’s long-standing complaints about the cancer assessment. “This, in turn, has created media attention, and coverage of the issue has created further confusion and concern in the surrounding community.”
Sterigenics executives have echoed the chemical industry’s statements about ethylene oxide, both during the long-delayed EPA review of hazards posed by the chemical and in the weeks since the agency released its air toxics assessment.
What happens next depends in part on the outcome of the Nov. 6 election, which pits Roskam against Democrat Sean Casten, a scientist and clean-energy entrepreneur, in one of the nation’s most fiercely contested races for political control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Roskam campaign did not answer questions from the Tribune about the chemical industry’s efforts to gut the agency’s ethylene oxide assessment. A campaign spokeswoman also declined to comment on Roskam’s votes in favor of the industry’s legislative priorities involving the regulation of toxic chemicals.
Roskam has joined other local officials who have urged Sterigenics to shut down its sterilization facility pending the results of air quality testing. He takes credit for persuading the EPA to conduct additional monitoring for ethylene oxide pollution in surrounding neighborhoods — a priority for every elected official and political candidate who has spoken out on the issue during the past two months.
“Representative Roskam has always been a friend to the environment and has promoted many policies to protect the environment,” Veronica Vera, the campaign spokeswoman, said in an email, “including opposing the president’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement on reducing carbon emissions.”
In addition to its pro-Roskam ad, the chemical industry has contributed $185,050 to the Republican incumbent’s campaign fund during the past decade, according to federal election data compiled by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. The oil and gas industry has given Roskam an additional $452,570, including $70,400 from Koch Industries, the privately held conglomerate owned by Charles and David Koch, top contributors to Republican causes and campaigns to roll back environmental regulations.
Casten contends the chemical industry’s support of Roskam, along with the congressman’s pro-industry voting record in Congress, shows he is beholden to Washington lobbyists and out of touch with his constituents in the 6th District.
For instance, Casten noted, one of the Republican-authored bills Roskam supported last year would have neutered EPA advisory boards featuring academic scientists, similar to the panels convened during the past decade to evaluate the health dangers of ethylene oxide.
The bill would have made it easier for industry-sponsored scientists to serve on advisory panels while banning academic researchers whose work is funded by the EPA, one of the top sources of support for independent studies of toxic chemicals and other environmental health issues.
Another industry-backed bill Roskam supported would have prohibited the EPA from basing anti-pollution regulations on peer-reviewed studies unless all of the data is publicly available. The legislation would throw out public health studies that rely on private medical information — the foundation of several key regulations limiting exposure to air pollution and toxic chemicals.
“Peter Roskam is a rubber stamp for President Trump’s fact-free, science-denying administration and special interests, which is actively harming the health and well-being of his constituents,” Casten said last week during a news conference with a leader of the labor union for local EPA employees and a representative from the League of Conservation Voters’ political arm. He vowed to fight for more federal support of science if elected.
Roskam has a 7 percent rating on environment- and health-related congressional votes tracked by the league. While his lifetime score is the highest among Republicans in the Illinois delegation, it contrasts sharply with the 93 percent rating of Democratic Rep. Bill Foster, a scientist who represents a neighboring district that includes the Sterigenics facility in Willowbrook.
“I’ve always had a hard time understanding why members of Congress like to tell scientists how to conduct their research,” Foster has said of the industry-supported bills. “Scientists should set the standards for research. Not politicians.”
Region: Lake County,Courts,Region: Suburbs
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October 25, 2018 at 05:30AM