The Cobb County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to fund an expert “to consult and evaluate any potential health issues for testing and modeling related to potential Ethylene Oxide emissions.” During commissioner comments on the motion, BOC Chairman Mike Boyce criticized the federal EPA and the Georgia EPD for their failure to alert residents and local governments when the hazards of ethylene oxide became known.
The Sterigenics plant became a focus of community concern after an article jointly published by Georgia Health News and WebMD reported that three census tracts, two in the Smyrna area and one in Covington, had unacceptable levels of cancer risk by EPA standards, due to elevated amounts of ethylene oxide in the air.
The cost of retaining the expert is specified not to exceed $39,600.
County Manager Rob Hosack said to the BOC, “I am presenting this agenda item on behalf of commissioners Cupid and Ott, and it is to request that the board retain an appropriate expert.”
“And this will be in cooperation with the City of Smyrna,” he said, “to consult and evaluate any potential health issues (and) for testing and modeling related to potential ethylene oxide emissions.”
“The particular firm that has provided that proposal is the GHD Company, specifically doing business as GHD Environmental and Consulting, Inc.,” Hosack said. “We are recommending that the board consider retaining GHD in conjunction with the City of Smyrna at a cost not to exceed $39,600 to be included in a contract document that would be reviewed and approved by the county attorney prior to signature by the chair.”
“We are also proposing that these funds be taken from Board of Commissioners undesignated contingency funds. And there are adequate funds in that account for this activity,” he said.
Commissioner Bob Ott said, “I know that this has been a very tumultuous couple of weeks for the community. This information kind of came out late. And its one of the reasons there’s a community meeting coming up next Monday to kind of get a lot of the information that Commissioner Cupid and I had the opportunity to hear from EPA and EPD because I think it’s important for that information to get out there.”
“This proposal is a one-time test,” he said. “I know that there was some concern by folks about spending county money. This is what contingency money is all about.”
“But more importantly,” he said, “this is a one-time test, and in a lot of ways what it’s designed to do is to let the community and the county and the City of Smyrna and potentially the City of Atlanta know whether or not what we’re being told by EPD and the EPA, whether or not those numbers are correct.”
Ott said that one of the reasons GHD was asked to submit a proposal is that it is the same firm that did the testing in Illinois. (The Willowbrook Ill. Sterigenics facility was shut down pending testing of newly installed anti-pollution devices after high levels of ethylene oxide were found in the air surrounding the plant).
Ott made the motion to approve the proposal.
Commissioner Lisa Cupid seconded the proposal, and said, “”(I) appreciate the board being responsive to this concern which has caused a lot of frustration among residents in that surrounding area.”
She said the proposal would not only allow the county to follow up with the numbers provided by the EPA and the EPD, but to take it a step further and test the ambient air in the communities around the site. She said the EPD would be testing emissions from the equipment, but not the air outside the plant.
Commissioners JoAnn Birrell and Keli Gambrill expressed support for the motion. Gambrill asked that that the county manager develop guidelines for the use of the contingency fund.
Boyce said that he had a conversation with his son-in-law, who is a journalist, and that his son-in-law said that the number one mistake people make in dealing with the media is trying to hide something, because once you do that the suspicion is “what else are you hiding?”
“I don’t know what led the EPA or the EPD to do what it did, but clearly they have a lot to answer for.”
The motion to fund the consultant passed 5-0.
After the meeting the Courier asked Boyce what the EPA and EPD should have done.
Boyce said, “They should have come out with a plan, in conjunction with Sterigenics, and sat down with the community, and said, ‘Look, the EPA just decided that this ethylene oxide is a bigger danger than we realized, and here’s what we’re proposing to do to address that issue.'”
“And when you do that kind of thing,” he said, “when you get out in front of the issue, and you engage the public … I’ll tell you, in Cobb County they will work with you.”
He said, “So that’s what I have found has worked best here, is get out there and tell them right up front … (it’s like) the old adage, fish doesn’t get better with age, you just have to tell people the bad news and the good news as soon as you find out about that.”
“But more importantly, tell them what your solution’s going to be,” he said.