COVINGTON — Residents expressed fear and distrust of BD and the state Environmental Protection Division Monday night during a three-hour public hearing on the controversy over cancer-causing ethylene oxide (EtO) being legally released from the BD plant (formerly C.R. Bard) on Industrial Boulevard.
More than 150 residents packed the Legion Field banquet hall to hear from officials, with 32 citizens coming to the microphone to ask questions and voice opinions on what needs to happen now.
The BD plant uses ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment. In 2016 the federal Environmental Protection Agency put EtO on a list of chemicals that definitely cause cancer, and in 2018 the agency the agency flagged 109 census tracts across the country, including Covington and Smyrna, where cancer risks were elevated because of exposure to airborne toxins such as ethylene oxide.
The danger remained relatively unknown to most until an article was published two weeks ago by Georgia Health News and WebMD, sparking concern and outrage among residents in those two metro Atlanta communities.
The two companies involved in Georgia – Sterigenics in Smyrna and BD in Covington – have agreed to voluntary reductions of emissions of ethylene oxide. EPD approved plans last Friday by Sterigenics to install new, anti-pollution controls to vastly reduce ethylene oxide emissions at its Smyrna facility. Similar controls are being planned for the BD plant in Covington, but have to be developed since BD uses a different type of system to control its EtO emissions.
The Smyrna City Council said it has committed to independent testing of the air surrounding the area’s Sterigenics plant to determine accurate levels of ethylene oxide in the community, and the Covington City Council has committed to similar independent testing around the BD plant.
After a conference call between Covington and Newton County leaders and EPA and EPD officials last week, the Covington City Council added the public hearing to the start of their regular council meeting Monday night and urged residents and officials to attend.
Representing the EPD were Director Rich Dunn and Air Protection Branch Chief Karen Hays. Representing BD were Ellen Kondracki, vice president of Environmental Health and Safety, and Ron Patterson, the senior operations manager for the sterilization facilities in Covington and Madison.
Patterson said BD’s emphasis is on safety for its employees and community. He went on to explain the three-step process of using ethylene oxide as a gas in the sterilization process. The process includes keeping the gas in a vacuum to keep it from escaping. The incinerator used to burn off the gas after sterilization has been tested and found it burns off 99.95% of the gas.
Kondracki noted that federal guidelines requires 99% burn off of the gas, and that their incinerator goes above that to burn off 99.95%.
Many of the citizens speaking has concerns about how the EPD and EPA determined the amount of EtO being released by BD, since the company does self-reporting on its emissions and the EPD and EPA do modeling studies, rather than actual monitoring of the facility and surrounding area. They expressed a lack of trust in both BD’s self-reporting and the EPD’s studies. Several mentioned a similar situation in Willow Brook, Ill., where an independent study done of a Sterigenics plant with ethylene oxide emissions found the emissions four times higher than the plant reported. That plant is currently shut down.
Dunn explained that there currently does not exist air quality monitoring equipment that will test for the concentration of ethylene oxide that the EPA considers dangerous, but that they are working on developing the equipment at the EPD laboratory in DeKalb County and hope to have monitoring equipment available within a year.
Several citizens of Walton County attended and spoke. They expressed concern about increased cases of cancer in their area, and especially increased cancer in children, and asked that any air monitoring being extended to a 25-mile radius to include parts of Walton County.
Several Covington residents broke down into tears talking about their fears for themselves and their children being affected by the EtO emissions and their concerns about needing to move to get away from the emissions.
One resident asked Kondracki if BD would be willing to pay for a health fair for employees and residents in the area.
Kondracki stated that BD doesn’t feel that anything they are doing is causing any ill effects in the area.
Residents asked if the BD plant could be shut down. Dunn said their emissions levels are within the permitted level. City Attorney Frank Turner Jr. noted that the federal and state governments are the only ones who revoke a permit, and that local city and county governments have no say in the permitting process.
One resident said she is a local educator and is now concerned about taking her school children outside for recess. She said any number of cancer risks is too high and that BD owes Covington an apology for putting its residents in danger.
Another citizen asked if there are other ways to sterilize medical equipment and why EtO has to be used.
Kondracki said medical devices are made from different materials and need different ways to be sterilized. She said about half of the medical devices currently in use are being sterilized by ethylene oxide.
The final citizen to speak noted that people are not going to want to move to Covington and urged officials to get it straightened out as soon as possible.
Covington held a short city council meeting following the hearing, and the council members also expressed their concerns on the issue and reiterated that the city wants to have independent testing done.
“I want to promise you that as a council member and as a citizen living in Covington and breathing this air, we’re going to get down to the bottom of this with independent contractors,” said Susie Keck. “It’s not going to be Bard, it’s not going to be EPA or EPD — we will work with them as well — but we’re going to get independent people so we know we can trust the data and the information that we’re getting.”