COVINGTON — Mayor Ronnie Johnston announced at a public hearing Monday night on the legal emission of cancer-causing ethylene oxide from the BD plant on Industrial Blvd. that on Tuesday, Aug. 20, at 5:30 p.m., there will be a town hall meeting in the Historic Newton County Courthouse with representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Georgia Department of Public Health, and Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) officials available to provide updates and answer questions about the situation.
An EPA report last year flagged two census tracts in the Smyrna area and one in Covington — along with dozens of other areas in the United States — for higher risks of cancer, driven largely by airborne releases of ethylene oxide, a gas used by sterilization facilities.
Both Smyrna and Covington have sterilization plants that use ethylene oxide. The cancer-causing chemical, the cancer risks associated with it and the Georgia facilities using the gas were detailed in a report last month by WebMD and Georgia Health News.
The issue of the emissions and their dangers to residents has caught the attention of many state and federal officials, and several attended the public hearing at Legion Field Monday night, along with the Newton County Board of Commissioners.
Gov. Brian Kemp’s office has announced it is investigating toxic pollution involving the two medical device sterilization plants in Covington and Smyrna. The two companies – Sterigenics in Smyrna and BD in Covington – have agreed to voluntary reductions of emissions of ethylene oxide.
Tim Fleming, Chief of Staff for Kemp, and Lorri Smith, Chief Operating Officer for Georgia, were in attendance at the public hearing. Both Fleming and Smith live in Covington. Fleming said the Governor’s Office is very involved in the situation.
“I can tell you I have been working very closely with Mayor (Ronnie) Johnston and Chairman (Marcello) Banes, and our floor leader, Senator Strickland,” said Fleming. “We are speaking almost daily… Our office has been involved since day one. This is not something that is going to be resolved overnight. We’ve got to be very methodical and be sure this gets resolved correctly.”
Sen. Strickland also attended the hearing and stated that he was at the meeting to learn as well.
“I first read about this in the article as well,” said Strickland. “I got a call that Sunday from the mayor, and I called Tim (Fleming) at well. We were all very concerned and very upset about this. The next day the Governor’s Office had EPD in their office… I’ve learned a lot in the last couple of weeks about this issue. We’re looking at what we can do at the state level, and what we can do locally as well — looking at what our options are.”
Congressman Hank Johnson was at the hearing and stated he was there to listen and learn.
“I want to thank you, Mayor Johnston, for convening this opportunity for the public to learn about what is going on in their area,” said Johnston. There is a lot of fear and definitely justifiably so. There is a lot of need for this information about what is actually happening in the community. I’m happy to be here and I’m going to be listening intently, so I can take whatever action is appropriate on my part.
Congressman Jody Hice sent his local representative, Ben Stout, to the meeting, and Chris Perkins attended representing Georgia Senator David Perdue.
Dr. Audrey Arona, director of the Gwinnett/Rockdale/Newton Health Department, was also in attendance. She noted that age-adjusted incidence rate for breast cancer is not more significant (in Covington) than the rest of Georgia.