Trump appointees obstructed investigation of Sterigenics, cancer-causing emissions, EPA says

Trump appointees obstructed investigation of Sterigenics, cancer-causing emissions, EPA says

“Illinois residents’ lives were put at risk because of orders given at the highest levels of Trump’s EPA,” local EPA union president Nicole Cantello says. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

Political leaders tied the hands of EPA staff looking into ethylene oxide releases in DuPage and Lake Counties, the agency’s inspector general says.

A senior political appointee in the Trump administration stifled attempts by Chicago-based environmental regulators to investigate and remedy cancer-causing ethylene oxide releases in the Chicago area, a new government report says.

The unnamed official instructed the Chicago office of the federal Environmental Protection Agency to refrain from inspecting ethylene oxide facilities including the Sterigenics medical sterilization plant in Willowbrook unless asked to by state officials, according to the report from the EPA’s inspector general.

Citing information investigators gathered from managers from the EPA’s Chicago region office, the report says “senior leaders” instructed staff members of the agency to limit air monitoring around the Sterigenics plant, refrain from seeking health and risk assessments from federal health officials and hold off on sending requests for information to ethylene oxide facilities in the area.

Trump appointees also withheld information almost three years ago when air monitoring detected a potential threat to residents in Willowbrook, according to the EPA inspector general’s report.

“The EPA delayed communicating health risks to community residents in Illinois … who lived near ethylene oxide-emitting facilities,” the report says. “Leadership delayed informing the Willowbrook, Illinois, community about the results of the EPA’s May 2018 short-term monitoring around the Sterigenics facility.”

Sri Rao, who’s part of the Willowbrook group Stop Sterigenics, called the report’s findings “incredibly disturbing.”

Rao said he and other members of his group traveled to Washington and were assured by William Wehrum, then head of the EPA’s air division, and other top officials that they were working to fix the issues.

“At this point, it looks like they lied to our faces,” Rao said.

Wehrum, a lawyer who has represented oil and gas and other industries, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

A union leader for EPA employees blasted the political interference in the agency’s oversight.

“Illinois residents’ lives were put at risk because of orders given at the highest levels of Trump’s EPA,” said Nicole Cantello, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704. “During the height of the ethylene oxide scare at Willowbrook, Trump officials stopped EPA career engineers from enforcing the Clean Air Act.”

The report also criticized the agency’s leadership under Trump for not engaging with people living in Lake County, where two other facilities emit ethylene oxide.

Like Sterigenics, Medline Industries in Waukegan sterilizes medical products. And Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee uses ethylene oxide to produce chemicals. Those plants continue to operate, while Sterigenics closed its Willowbrook plant in 2019.

Lake County residents wanted the EPA to test the air around Medline and Vantage, but the agency refused. They also appealed to Gov. J.B. Pritzker for help.

“Both sides are beholden to the corporate interests,” said Tea Tanaka, a community organizer in Lake County, likening Democrat Pritzker to the Republican administration of former President Donald Trump. “Both sides are allowing communities to be exposed to a carcinogen.”

A spokeswoman for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency defended the governor’s record on the issue and noted that Pritzker signed a law aimed at curbing emissions.

“Illinois took action to protect communities and residents,” spokeswoman Kim Biggs said. “Bipartisan legislation was drafted, passed and signed by Gov. Pritzker in 2019.”

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth: “unacceptable that civil servants were instructed by senior political appointees to not conduct inspections of toxic emissions.” Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times
U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth: “unacceptable that civil servants were instructed by senior political appointees to not conduct inspections of toxic emissions.”

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, was among the critics of the ethylene oxide investigation and had called on the EPA’s inspector general to look into possible political interference.

“The Trump administration chose business over the safety of our communities,” Duckworth said. “It’s unacceptable that civil servants were instructed by senior political appointees to not conduct inspections of toxic emissions, delay public notifications of dangerous levels of emissions and refuse to hold public meetings with residents impacted by this harmful cancer-causing chemical.”

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

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