The Sterigenics facility in Smyrna at the center of controversy for Cobb residents.

The Sterigenics facility in Smyrna at the center of controversy for Cobb residents. / Georgia Public Broadcasting

Cobb County residents and elected officials met Monday night at the Cobb Civic Center for a town hall on the Smyrna Sterigenics plant.

The company, which sterilizes medical products using ethylene oxide, has been releasing hundreds of pounds of the gas into the atmosphere. Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency classified it as a carcinogenic.

GPB's Ross Terrell joins All Things Considered host Rickey Bevington to discuss the Sterigenics facility, how we got here, and what comes next.

Hundreds of people showed up to the town hall and many wanted to know why the facility hasn't been shut down.

Dika Kuoh with Georgia's Environmental Protection Division said while they could, they don’t have the ability to right now to shut down the facility.

“We would have to have a legal basis for shutting them down,” Kuoh said. “Even if we are able to shut them down, it would be temporary. We would have to have data and all that kind of stuff. So, it's just not a short-term solution and one that we're looking at.”

But Democratic Sen. Jen Jordan said she was disappointed with a lot of thing she heard at the town hall, and she hoped Gov. Brian Kemp would step in to close the facility in the meantime.

Jordan stressed this isn’t a partisan issue but instead one that cuts across all party lines.   

Kuoh said they were, however, able to agree to a consent order with the company. It requires them to install enhanced technology, such as air scrubbers, within the next six months.

“Our responsibility was to negotiate with the facility to get that installed,” he said. “Luckily, the facility has complied with us, they’ve been cooperative. We’ve established a 24-week schedule.” 

Last week, Cobb allocated some $40,000 for third-party air testing. 

In Covington, a facility named BD Bard also uses ethylene oxide to sterilize medical products. The city council there approved $68,500 for third-party testing as well.

Georgia’s EPD and the EPA planned to hold meetings with Covington residents Tuesday night.

Sterigenics has 47 facilities in 13 countries but, at their Smyrna facility, its president said they sterilize about a million products a day, which is why they won't voluntarily close the plant while enhancements are added.

The EPD will soon begin deploying air testers, which are silver canteens about the size of a basketball, to capture the air and send it back to a lab for testing. Kuoh said the company is operating under the legal limit but that's all based on self-reported numbers, which residents said shouldn't be trusted.