COVINGTON — Newton County will follow the lead of Gov. Brian Kemp’s office in determining its next steps in addressing ethylene oxide emissions from the Becton Dickinson medical sterilizing plant in Covington.
While the city of Covington has committed to conducting air testing around the BD plant on Industrial Boulevard, and the state Environmental Protection Division also plans to conduct air testing, Newton County Commission Chairman Marcello Banes said Friday that the county is “highly anticipating what (the governor’s) plan will be. We will be in full support of it.”
Banes deferred to the Governor’s Office for details on the plan; the Governor’s Office did have any updates as of Friday.
Banes said he and the other commissioners support additional air testing, but he believes the county should move deliberately.
“To throw dollars at this without a plan is a big mistake,” he said.
He added that the county has not committed any financial support to the city for additional air testing at this time.
“It’s great that they are testing … but what’s the plan in place other than testing?” he said. “There’s got to be something else.”
A 2018 Environmental Protection Agency report found elevated cancer risks due to ethylene oxide emissions in three census tracts in metro Atlanta — two in the Smyrna area and one in Covington, where the BD plant operates. The findings about elevated risks were not due to new emission sources or increased emissions. Rather they were due to EPA’s finding that the long-term exposure to the gas may be more harmful than previously thought.
In response to the findings, the city of Covington and state Environmental Protection Division announced plans to measure ethylene oxide levels around the Covington BD plan.
Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston said Tuesday the city’s testing will employ approximately 10 canisters and the results will be sent to two different labs for analysis.
“We will not be announcing when we test,” said Johnston. “Our goal is to hopefully get this information as soon as possible. We are on track to be the first one in the state of Georgia to perform testing and getting the data back. I congratulate the council for being proactive and that quick.”
The EPD will collect air samples every six days over the next several months. Four monitoring stations will be established, ranging in distance from a quarter mile to a mile from the company property, both upwind and downwind. A commercial laboratory will conduct the testing, and results are expected in early November.
Subsequent to the decisions to conduct air testing, BD issued a statement on two ethylene oxide release “events” that occurred since 2000 — one in Covington and one in Madison where BD operates another sterilization facility. BD reported that on January 20, 2016, the BD facility in Covington had a “flange gasket failure” on equipment that converts ethylene oxide from liquid to gas. According to BD, “not more than 85 pounds” of ethylene oxide gas were released inside the facility. The company reported that it stopped operations immediately and the event was reported to EPD within six hours, as well as to Newton County Emergency Management and the Covington Fire Department. EPD determined that no corrective action was needed.
BD, which is operating in compliance with its EPD permit, has committed to Gov. Kemp that it will further reduce emissions through an $8 million investment in sterilization operations in Covington and Madison.
Eight residents spoke at the end of Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners meeting, urging the county to get involved in air quality testing. Theodosia Wade said testing only within the city limits of Covington won’t provide a full picture of the ethylene oxide emissions.
“The question is how far out do you test, and I know that,” said Wade. “… I don’t think it’s something we can wait on, though. This chemical is a known carcinogen.”
Bernadette Smith also encouraged commissioners to extend air testing into the county. She said her husband died two years ago from cancer, and she was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly thereafter.
“The analogy of the canary in the coal mine keeps coming to my mind, and my husband was a canary,” she said. “And I know there are a lot more canaries in this county.”
Kallie Ingram, who said she had lived and worked most of her life within a 2-mile radius of BD, said her daughter was born with a rare genetic mutation most likely caused by an environmental factor. Another woman said she lives 10 miles from BD Bard and has been diagnosed with Stage 3 ovarian cancer. “No one is trying to put them out of business,” she said. “We want them to correct the problem. They can correct the problem; they’ve got enough money to do so. There are other ways to sterilize equipment.”
in response to citizens’ comments, District 2 Commissioner Demond Mason said the ethylene oxide problem needs to be addressed, and that he would allow the chairman to set the direction for the board.
He also cautioned residents not to pinpoint BD Bard as the sole source of health problems.
“What I don’t want is our community to get caught up in stating that this is the only reason why we are having health challenges within our community,” Mason said. “I believe this could potentially be for some cases. I think we as a community really need to start focusing on health and wellness.”
District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson said he hasn’t bought in to all the information from state and federal environmental agencies.
“Are we so naive that we believe everything that those people from up the road tell us?” he said … “We need to close that plant down until we find out what’s going on. We need to have cancer screenings for every person in the affected area.”
District 5 Commissioner Ronnie Cowan, who lives in eastern Newton County, said he supports expanded air quality testing.
“Obviously, it’s a carcinogen, and it’s in the air, and just like you I’m scared,” he said. “It makes me pretty nervous. I’d like to find out exactly what the amounts are and where it’s at.”