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Will there be a special session for Sterigenics?

Monday, Jul 22, 2019

* My weekly syndicated newspaper column

“Sterigenics should be completely shut down until we determine it can operate safely,” gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker tweeted last October.

A month after taking office, Gov. Pritzker made good on the first part of that campaign promise. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency issued a “seal order” to close the company’s doors.

Sterigenics sterilizes medical instruments at its plant in suburban Willowbrook, using the cancer-causing gas ethylene oxide. About 19,000 people live within a mile of the plant. Four schools are also close by, as are shopping areas and office buildings. People claim, with no small amount of evidence, that the plant has caused an unusual number of cancer cases.

That part of the world is home to lots of upper-income folks. It is represented in Springfield by House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, who has repeatedly demanded the company either leave Willowbrook or be forced out.

That’s not exactly a Republican thing to do, but the company is seen as so toxic (literally and figuratively) that Durkin’s sentiment is most certainly overwhelmingly popular. Environmental testing after the plant was closed showed a significant drop in ethylene oxide presence in the local environment. People started to breathe easier (literally and figuratively).

Durkin eventually passed a bill that he believed would keep the plant closed by setting the regulatory bar extremely high to reopen the facility, although the governor’s office claims it warned Durkin that the bill offered no guarantees of permanent closure.

To the surprise of many, the company decided to spend the money to try and bring its plant into compliance with what has been touted as the absolute toughest ethylene oxide emission regulations anywhere.

Last week, Sterigenics, the Illinois attorney general, the DuPage County state’s attorney and the governor (in that order) announced an agreement had been reached in the various court cases over the plant’s closure, subject to judicial approval.

Durkin and other legislators were briefed on the deal earlier in the day and were shocked at the decision. They asked for a delay until at least after an August public meeting. The request was denied.

Sterigenics quickly issued a press release trumpeting the new agreement, which also stunned Durkin and the others. Some area mayors were being briefed on the agreement when somebody at the meeting announced that the company’s press release had been posted on CapitolFax.com. “Everyone on the state side lost color in their face,” claimed one participant.

It took the attorney general and state’s attorney more than two hours to issue their own press release announcing the agreement to settle the court cases. The governor’s office didn’t issue its own response until almost half an hour later. By then, all heck had broken loose.

Leader Durkin and other legislators issued statements denouncing the agreement. Sterigenics is seen by many locals as an untrustworthy bad actor. Doing deals with companies like that is never going to be an easy sell, and it’s even more difficult when a company jumps the public relations gun. People felt like chumps.

The back and forth escalated in the news media and on social media until the governor’s office eventually issued a press release which called on Leader Durkin to draft a new bill “that will fix the perceived shortcomings of the legislation that he sponsored.” Pritzker said he would call a special legislative session to allow for an immediate vote.

Durkin, in turn, claimed Pritzker was trying to “fast track” the plant’s reopening and demanded the governor write his own bill and call a special session.

So, are we really heading for a special legislative session this summer?

Right now, this looks like show business. Just some political posturing for member and constituent management purposes while both sides attempt to pick their way through the news cycles and social media furor.

I think the key here is DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin. The prosecutor took a strong public stance against Sterigenics when he and the attorney general filed suit last year. Berlin joined Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul in the consent order, saying it goes “above and beyond the most restrictive regulations in the country.” Berlin could be the local voice of reason, although he’s up for reelection next year, so we’ll see how far ahead of this he wants to get.

I don’t think anyone wants to interrupt their summer with a special session to deal with this mess, but people need to start talking with each other instead of past each other.

…Adding… Expectations are high…


- Posted by Rich Miller        

29 Comments
  1. - Cubs in '16 - Monday, Jul 22, 19 @ 9:42 am:

    I’m with the governor on this one. It’s Durkin’s bill so if he doesn’t like what’s happening he needs to fix it or stop whining.


  2. - Timmy - Monday, Jul 22, 19 @ 9:46 am:

    Well if the bill says need ” x” and you produce “x” I dont see how you can say no. Sorry it came as a shock but you should have thought more ahead then.we are a society of laws, seems they might be complying???


  3. - Anon221 - Monday, Jul 22, 19 @ 9:48 am:

    “…subject to judicial approval.”

    Before all the horses buck their way out of the barn, has judicial approval happened as yet?


  4. - Looking down the Road - Monday, Jul 22, 19 @ 9:54 am:

    Why not simply ban the production, use, storage and transport of ethylene oxide in Illinois? Problem solved.


  5. - Jocko - Monday, Jul 22, 19 @ 9:55 am:

    ==the company decided to spend the money (AGAIN) to try and bring its plant into compliance==

    Let’s not forget Sterigenics installing equipment on June 26, 2018 to mitigate the risk (or simply stay open) which was found to be woefully inadequate.


  6. - Oswego Willy - Monday, Jul 22, 19 @ 9:55 am:

    To the Post,

    To paraphrase what I’ve written, but to riff on the great column Rich wrote to the subject;

    Sterigenics got out the messaging first, caught everyone flat footed, and again was the bad actor in process.

    The real end game, the honest real end game, would be all folks recognizing this about Sterigenics and the community, governor, the legislators… they all realize the villain is still… Stergenics and move towards working together, even if it means leaving Sterigenics out.

    When Durkin and Co “decided” to throw the governor under the bus, because, governors do own, that’ll never change, it put the legislators in a position of covering themselves, sure, but they themselves not helping process, and the signed bill gets highlighted… because that language in it… welp… that’s how this all went down.

    So… here we are, but if anyone forgets how we got here these past days, remember, Stergenics decided to out-flank and blast a PR release no one saw coming, both in words and timing. Forgetting it, or now focusing away from Stergenics, the true bad actor… made, to Stergenics, that release all the better.

    No one is going to win this, but now it’s how bad any side can end up looking by not working together in the end.

    Let’s hope a “special season”, a legislative fix”, a “full assault on the bad actor” means y’all are pulling on the same side of the rope.


  7. - Hamlet's Ghost - Monday, Jul 22, 19 @ 9:59 am:

    == I think the key here is DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin. ==

    Indeed.

    And remember, if the following is to take effect before July 1, 2020 then 60/30 isn’t enough - it’s 3/5ths

    == Why not simply ban the production, use, storage and transport of ethylene oxide in Illinois? ==


  8. - State of DenIL - Monday, Jul 22, 19 @ 10:08 am:

    It’s actually a good thing if Sterigenics is attempting to comply with the most stringent regulations in the country. Calls into question why such regulations are not a national standard. Every ethylene oxide-using facility in the nation should comply with these. That is a positive and not a negative.

    That said, Sterigenics has shown itself to be a slimeball Corp time and time again, to fatal results.

    The politics here is ludicrous. Durkin needs to draft new legislation. JB has been an outstanding governor thus far and did exactly what he should do for the people of Willowbrook: utilize emergent powers in order to allow their rep to address the situation in a meaningful way. Durkin should be praising the governors quick action and should spend his time today drafting legislation with his staff instead of whining to the media.

    You’ve been a brave leader before, Jim. Step up to the plate and be brave again. Ball is in your court.


  9. - Huh? - Monday, Jul 22, 19 @ 10:16 am:

    What is shocking is durkin is surprised that his law was used so fast to reopen sterigenics. Apparently, he thought the company wouldn’t spend the money to install the necessary equipment to reduce EO emissions.


  10. - Responsa - Monday, Jul 22, 19 @ 10:23 am:

    The Sterigenics plant was a huge campaign issue and the subject of many campaign ads. Those of us who live outside of Sterigenics range could empathize and easily imagine ourselves in that situation. We were encouraged by the apparent bi-partisan support to eject the plant from suburban Chicago. From what we now know the new governor did not keep the faith on this and the way in which it was handled makes him look weak and disorganized and out of touch on something most people thought there was common agreement on regardless of one’s politics or income.


  11. - Soccermom - Monday, Jul 22, 19 @ 10:43 am:

    I can’t understand how this is being handled. Why the heck would we yield the “Environmental Protector” badge to the GOP? And why pick this particular fight with Durkin? I feel like somebody’s playing 3D chess here, but I don’t see the rest of the board.


  12. - Bothanspy - Monday, Jul 22, 19 @ 10:52 am:

    Rich, you should reopen comments on your post from Friday outlining the similarities and differences between the bill and the consent degree. I agree this is a lot of political grandstanding but I think we might all be making a hullabaloo out of this issue without understanding the facts in the two paths forward.
    If Stergenics is willing to meet the most stringent regulations in the History of Man, then either this is a good thing or there is a loophole not addressed in either the bill or consent decree.


  13. - Oswego Willy - Monday, Jul 22, 19 @ 11:00 am:

    ===If Stergenics is willing to meet the most stringent regulations in the History of Man, then either this is a good thing or there is a loophole not addressed in either the bill or consent decree.===

    (Sigh)

    The politics, the “show business” to this makes those thoughts a walking disaster.

    Durkin, the Governor, others made points that the facility needs to close.

    Your thought makes Durkin look embarrassingly weak;

    “Welp, they’re not closed, but golly, the stringent rules…”

    Yeah, that sounds ridiculous.

    Durkin blaming his own weak bill, then defending his own weak bill, again, not great.

    The Governor calls out Durkin, as Durkin tries, and it’s successful, governors own, and the Governor made a point to close the place, it’s obvious the bill failed to do so.

    It’s the show business that Sterigenics put into play by jumping the gun, purposely, to have everyone turn on each other, and not Sterigenics, the bad actor.

    The last thing, the very last thing, I’d roll out is praising a failed bill claiming how tough it is, when the show biz promise was to close Sterigenics as the end game.

    Folks facing serious medical conditions care less about how tough a “failed” bill made it for the company “killing” them.


  14. - Hamlet's Ghost - Monday, Jul 22, 19 @ 11:08 am:

    The proposed consent order is the best possible result this side of an outright ban on ethylene oxide.

    An outright ban is problematic as there are issues with alternative methods of sterilization.

    https://www.medtechdive.com/news/fda-launches-innovation-challenge-to-boost-ethylene-oxide-sterilization-alt/558859/

    == More than 50% of medical devices are sterilized using EtO instead of steam or radiation due to its unique ability to sterilize certain plastics, resin, metals and glass.

    “For many medical devices, sterilization with ethylene oxide may be the only method that effectively sterilizes and does not damage the device during the sterilization process,” FDA wrote in a fact sheet.

    The medical device industry has been actively lobbying the government to maintain access to EtO as a sterilant until alternative methods are developed. ==


  15. - Bothanspy - Monday, Jul 22, 19 @ 11:08 am:

    ##Folks facing serious medical conditions care less about how tough a “failed” bill made it for the company “killing” them.
    ##

    I take your point, but I guess where I get stuck is if the threat from the plant is neutralized in the form of aggressive standards, then why should we continue to not let them operate if they are willing to meet the standards that we dictate?
    I live outside the “contamination zone” so I’m not as emotionally invested or charged as the members of that community are and should be.


  16. - Oswego Willy - Monday, Jul 22, 19 @ 11:16 am:

    ===if the threat from the plant is neutralized in the form of aggressive standards, then why should we continue to not let them operate if they are willing to meet the standards that we dictate===

    That’s the crux.

    Durkin blasting the Governor, but staying his own bill need not be changed is as phony as saying “I won’t rest until those doors are sealed closed”

    Had Durkin the courage to wait 17 minutes to talk with the governor’s office and they both, and all actors outside Sterigenics decided collectively to respond, and hold accountable Sterigenics, and together, instead of turning on each other, decided the best answer to a no win situation was they ALL turned on Sterigenics, the narrative *could be* about how awful Sterigenics is and the big change now they needed to make.

    Two things I loathe, can’t stand, watching bad baseball and bad politics.

    Durkin, fearing his constituents turned to political cover instead of the overwhelming policy cover they ALL could enjoy going after Sterigenics while trying to correct a tough promise to keep.

    So… here we are.


  17. - Looking down the Road - Monday, Jul 22, 19 @ 11:29 am:

    If Ethylene Oxide is the hazard that everyone believes, it should be banned. Period. That includes the Medline facility. Any other course opens the door to “selective” enforcement.


  18. - MarginofEra - Monday, Jul 22, 19 @ 11:36 am:

    == That’s the crux. ==

    The modeled 85 lbs of ethylene oxide is still a lot, particularly for a community that has already been burdened for over three decades. It doesn’t take much of this to cause a lot of damage, including mutating genes.

    There’s also a lot of concern about the total permanent enclosure being proposed. Exempting dock doors from being so far away from emission sources, promising to only open one door at a time… this isn’t a company to be trusted and for good reason. The monitoring systems are also averaging over three hours… come on.

    It is really upsetting to see the Governor’s office and Leader Durkin go back and forth on this. It’s time to move forward together and stop this nightmare for the community.


  19. - Oswego Willy - Monday, Jul 22, 19 @ 11:50 am:

    ===It is really upsetting to see the Governor’s office and Leader Durkin go back and forth on this. It’s time to move forward together and stop this nightmare for the community.===

    Bad baseball, bad politics. Can’t stand watching either.

    Sterigenics caught everyone flat-footed and it appears Durkin responded by first blaming the governor, the governor calling the bill by Durkin a failure, Durkin stands by his bill, while the bill still doesn’t address the Sterigenics situation, the Governor, while owning, uses the power of the office to say “call special session, fix this, I’ll sign it”

    Notice who is outside *all* the back and forth?

    Sterigenics

    Great PR move by Sterigenics. They got the sides to point fingers… for days.

    The bad politics by Durkin (or his crew here) is ridiculous, and has taken Sterigenics out of the real discussion.

    Just a “17 minute” regroup and discussion to be united against the lone bad actor, Sterigenics, could have made a huge difference.


  20. - Going nuclear - Monday, Jul 22, 19 @ 1:35 pm:

    My question is whether Pritzker, IEPA and AG staff could have done more to keep area legislators and local citizen groups in the loop as they worked on the agreement with Sterigenics. Why wait until the day the deal is announced to inform local legislators and mayors that Sterigenics was agreeable to installing more controls to reduce ethylene oxide emissions? Why not conduct a public meeting to get input on the company’s compliance plan before it is finalized?


  21. - Oswego Willy - Monday, Jul 22, 19 @ 1:44 pm:

    ===Why wait until the day the deal is announced to inform local legislators and mayors that Sterigenics was agreeable to installing more controls to reduce ethylene oxide emissions?===

    Narrator: Sterigenics announced the deal, on their own, forcing the responses of everyone else.

    This is critical to probably why you can’t understand it.

    ===Why not conduct a public meeting to get input on the company’s compliance plan before it is finalized?===

    The law versus what the public “wants” at times seems to be at odds.

    Getting input on Durkin’s bill to then the agency work and agreement is probably more frustrating than the discussion could make it better? Dunno.

    ===Pritzker, IEPA and AG staff could have done more to keep area legislators and local citizen groups in the loop as they worked on the agreement with Sterigenics.===

    Ask the DuPage state’s attorney that question.

    To Mrs. Thome’s tweet;

    “There’d better be a special session. Who will step up and fix this mess? @JBPritzker ? @jimdurkin82 @DuPageSAO Bob Berlin? @KwameRaoul ? Everyone needs to work together here. Who will start the ball rolling? Voters are watching and waiting.”

    As a baseball wife, and on her own a strong advocate to this issue, I’m sure watching bad baseball and bad politics could bring her the same ire?

    “Everyone needs to work together here. Who will start the ball rolling? Voters are watching and waiting.”

    Ball game.


  22. - Elizabeth Neill - Monday, Jul 22, 19 @ 1:53 pm:

    Thanks for explaining. I favor an outright ban because of Sterigenics’ history and the plant in Waukegan.


  23. - Rasselas - Monday, Jul 22, 19 @ 2:17 pm:

    If, as Hamlet’s Ghost said, this product is a medical necessity, one wonders whether the powers that be would be bending all over themselves to put the company out of business if it were in Ford Heights, for example.


  24. - Big Boy Pants - Monday, Jul 22, 19 @ 2:39 pm:

    While the court of public opinion has ruled on the company, the court case on the Seal Order was very weak. The AG, IEPA and DuPage Cty SA are smart folks. They all knew with no violation of law, regulation or permit, it was only a matter of time before a judge ruled to reopen. Smart move to settle before company prevailed and turned the tables on the State by seeking compensation for seizing their property.


  25. - Things that make you go hmmmm - Monday, Jul 22, 19 @ 2:54 pm:

    It appears that Citizens for Durkin received 5K from CHEMPAC on 6/25/19.


  26. - Chemistry Reality - Monday, Jul 22, 19 @ 2:59 pm:

    “If Ethylene Oxide is the hazard that everyone believes, it should be banned. Period. That includes the Medline facility. Any other course opens the door to “selective” enforcement.”

    and to “Why not simply ban the production, use, storage and transport of ethylene oxide in Illinois? Problem solved.”

    The problem with that is that Ethylene Oxide is emitted through many, many ways including 6,800 pounds of ethylene oxide emitted into the air just by vehicles in DuPage county every year.


  27. - Oswego Willy - Monday, Jul 22, 19 @ 3:02 pm:

    ===The problem with that is that Ethylene Oxide is emitted through many, many ways including 6,800 pounds of ethylene oxide emitted into the air just by vehicles in DuPage county every year.===

    This is how *not* to message a thought.

    So, you’re cool with the company possibly giving cancer to folks… because cars?

    That’s your argument?

    Stick with chemistry, wading into politics isn’t going to lead to the chemical reaction you hope.

    Yikes.


  28. - From the Corn Crib - Monday, Jul 22, 19 @ 5:02 pm:

    Big Boy Pants is correct. The facility was operating within its permit. I think Sterigenics would have prevailed in court if they chose to fight the seal order. For me, the question is why, when new data (I think the new data was presented in 2015) showed an increased toxicity, wasn’t the permit modified to account for the new toxicological concerns? Is there no mechanism for that? It became a political hot potato when the application of new science failed to be implemented. I feel badly for people affected by this, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. And it’s going to be the same Agency that issued the original permit that’s going to ensure compliance with the new standards.


  29. - Last Bull Moose - Monday, Jul 22, 19 @ 5:21 pm:

    Some early stories told of Sterigenics employees purposely discharging ethylene oxide in violation of their permits. The State and County AG’s must have thought they could not prove that. Willful violation of permits was the big hammer. Seems that charge went away.


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