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New congressional task force formed to pressure U.S. EPA to adopt new ethylene oxide rules: 'Something that should have been done a long time ago' (November 20, 2019)

Emily K. Coleman
November 20, 2019

A new congressional task force, billed as bipartisan but so far dominated by Chicago-area Democrats, has been formed to pressure the Environmental Protection Agency to update its ethylene oxide regulations.

Ethylene oxide came under sharp scrutiny last year after Chicago Tribune investigations revealed that three Chicago area plants were emitting the chemical into the air, years after the EPA changed its designation from probable carcinogen to known.

The EPA has yet to revise its rules regulating how sterilizers like Sterigenics, which has announced it would be closing its Willowbrook facility, and Medline in Waukegan, along with other companies like Vantage Specialties in Gurnee use ethylene oxide.

U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Deerfield, said he had originally been told new rules would be coming in May 2019 but the date kept getting pushed back, with the EPA now indicating February.

“This feels like one of those arguments where, ‘We’re on it — you should have it any day now,' and now ‘any day now’ is February,” Schneider said Wednesday morning, noting that the known carcinogen classification occurred three years ago.

“This is a part of our frustration with the EPA," he added. "It is unfair, not just to the residents of these communities but to the companies that are using these chemicals, for the EPA not to give some guidance.”

The congressional task force, which also counts a Pennsylvania Democrat, two Georgia Democrats and two Georgia Republicans among its members, will throw its weight behind a bill introduced by Schneider in February, said Rep. Jody Hice, a Georgia Republican who is serving as the task force’s co-chair along with Schneider.

The bill would require the EPA to amend its ethylene oxide regulations in light of its changed status as a carcinogen and to notify the public of any violations of these new standards.

The steps are “a very common sense move forward” and “something that should have been done a long time ago,” Hice said.

At the state level, the Illinois Legislature passed two bills earlier this year that placed new limits on ethylene oxide emissions. An effort to pass even more stringent regulations during the Legislature’s recent veto session, though, was unsuccessful.

While the task force is currently dominated by Democrats, that’s for geographic, not partisan, reasons, Schneider said.

The three facilities in the Chicago suburbs led to the inclusion of five area Democrats: Schneider, Dan Lipinski, Sean Casten, Bill Foster and Lauren Underwood. Facilities in Georgia and Pennsylvania led to the involvement of Hice, fellow Georgia Republican Barry Loudermilk, Georgia Democrats David Scott and Hank Johnson, and Pennsylvania Democrat Susan Wild.

The task force is still very new, Hice said, adding that he expects more congressional representatives to join as they become aware of the issue.

“The health of all of our constituents is a bipartisan issue,” Hice said in a media call Wednesday morning.

The more members of congress who join, the more impact the task force’s efforts will have, Schneider said.

“This is an issue we intend to address — I intend to address — in very much a collaborative way that doesn’t deal with partisan politics but works on how can we protect the air our communities breathe,” Schneider said.