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‘Unacceptable’ cancer risks lead to stricter rules on ethylene oxide, but won’t impact plants in northern suburbs

Some Illinois plants will be required to monitor and strengthen safeguards for equipment, storage tanks and vents to prevent leaks and the release of the carcinogenic gas, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said.

Barb Hernandez (center, holding sign) says new federal rules for ethylene oxide plants aren’t strict enough.
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After determining that cancer risks are “unacceptable,” the federal government has taken an initial step to reduce the release of the gas ethylene oxide into the air, but the new requirements to protect the public don’t apply to a pair of plants in the northern suburbs that are at the center of health concerns by residents.

Neither Medline Industries in Waukegan, which uses the gas to sterilize medical equipment, or Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee, which uses ethylene oxide to produce chemicals, are directly affected. A new federal rule announced this week is aimed at monitoring and safeguarding equipment, storage tanks and vents at plants to prevent leaks and the release of the carcinogenic gas into the air, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Disappointed that neither Lake County facility is facing more stringent regulation, a local community group called the rule “useless.”

The EPA action “is nothing but a pointless sham,” said Barb Hernandez of Gurnee, who belongs to Stop EtO in Lake County. EtO is a shortened reference to ethylene oxide.

Sterilization operations like Medline’s plant weren’t being considered for the new rule, which has been the subject of review for more than a year. However, tougher guidelines for such facilities are being considered, the EPA said. The now-shuttered Sterigenics plant in Willowbrook was also a sterilizing operation.

Vantage, which uses ethylene oxide to produce chemicals, belongs to a class of manufacturers that was most recently being scrutinized by the EPA for the new safety rule but an agency spokeswoman said that Gurnee facility didn’t emit enough of the gas to be considered a “major source” of air pollution.

Lake County residents had hoped the EPA would require strict air monitoring around the boundaries of the Gurnee plant to make sure that the cancer-causing gas doesn’t spread through the community.

The EPA is expected to consider new rules for sterilization plants such as Medline’s, though the timetable for a final action is unclear. In a statement, the agency said it expects to issue a proposal later this year.

“Addressing emissions of the ethylene oxide remains a major priority for the agency,” the statement said.

Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Ill., echoed concerns voiced by Hernandez.

“Our communities need the EPA to issue the rule regulating sterilizers and to begin air monitoring to ensure the safety of the air we breathe — anything less is yet another half-measure from [the Trump] administration that continues to drag its feet addressing this threat,” Schneider said in a statement to the Sun-Times.

In a joint statement this week, Illinois Senators Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, both Democrats, also blasted Trump’s EPA for its handling of the issue: “EPA’s final rule still fails to protect public health and will still leave too many communities, especially communities of color, vulnerable to air pollution that creates intolerably high cancer risk.”

The Sterigenics Willowbrook sterilization site was shut down temporarily by the state of Illinois in February 2019 because of concerns about the release of the cancer-causing gas. Last fall, the company said it will not reopen the operation. The fallout began after a Chicago Tribune article in August 2018 reported that people living near the plant were in an area with some of the highest cancer risks in the U.S. In December, the Tribune reported that a federally funded study also showed high rates of cancer in Waukegan near the Medline plant.

In January, Medline halted sterilizations to complete $10 million in upgrades so it can meet standards under a new Illinois law. Operations resumed in March.

Medline spokesman Jesse Greenberg said the recent plant upgrades at the Waukegan facility are designed to capture virtually all ethylene oxide releases. “The safety of the community and our employees will continue to be our top priority,” he said.

Vantage officials declined requests for an interview.

“Vantage complies with all state and federal rules and permits and will continue to do so,” Vantage spokesman Dennis Culloton said.

The EPA’s new rules regarding ethylene oxide will require tougher rules for seven Illinois plants, all of them outside the Chicago area. They include Stepan Co. in Elwood and BASF in Kankakee. The other plants identified by EPA are DynaChem in Georgetown, Emerald Performance Materials in Henry, Equistar Chemicals in Morris, Marquis Energy in Hennepin and Solutia in Sauget.

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.