By Alfredo Santana
VERNON — Two elected officials — a county supervisor and an assemblyman — have stepped up their efforts to get the South Coast Air Quality Management District to close the Sterigenics plant in Vernon until it quits releasing toxic ethylene oxide into the atmosphere.
County Supervisor Janice Hahn, disappointed with the decision that let Sterigenics operate while an ongoing probe tries to find and correct the causes of elevated carcinogenic chemical emissions, launched an online form urging residents to sign up to support closing the facility until it meets safe environmental standards.
“These industries cannot be above the rules,” Hahn told Maywood residents in an email linked to the petition. “So together we are sending the message: you have a right to clean, healthy air.”
And in a letter signed June 3, Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, urged South Coast AQMD Executive Director Wayne Nastri to “immediately shut down” the plant located at 4900 Gifford Ave. and investigate the operations that put workers and community health at risk.
“The communities I represent in the 53rd Assembly District are disproportionately impacted by air pollution, including harmful toxic emissions from businesses that fail to comply with environmental rules and regulations,” Santiago said in the letter. “I have received numerous complaints from my constituents expressing their concern that the operations at the Sterigenics facilities in Vernon endanger the well-being of their workers and nearby communities.”
At the onset of its probe, the AQMD reported that the two industrial plants are located 1,700 feet away from a school and homes are within 500 feet of the plants.
Santiago said faulty air pollution control equipment is causing ethylene oxide to be released into the company’s building and flow outside to nearby industries, posing an elevated health risk for on-site Sterigenic employees, off-site workers and area residents.
“South Coast AQMD must require Sterigenics to immediately cease operations until their facilities no longer pose harm to workers and our communities,” Santiago said.
For her part, Hahn said in her petition that the health and safety of Maywood residents has long been challenged by lead particles from the defunct Exide Techonologies battery plant and from a magnesium chemical fire.
Although Hahn acknowledged the investigation and measures to improve air quality include a monitoring plan within the premises and in the community, she balked at the notion of keeping Sterigenics open short-term.
“We cannot risk the health and safety of our residents while these investigations are underway,” Hahn told the South Coast AQMD in the form. “We are urging you to require Sterigenics to cease ethylene oxide emitting operations until they come into compliance with air quality rules and regulations.”
The release of ethylene oxide took relevance on May 5, when the state agency issued a notice of violation against Sterigenics after non-scheduled inspections detected failures operating the air control system according to permit and for its lax maintenance.
Also, inspectors found that the sterilizing facility did not equip control devices with a pressure gauge and a pH meter for water acidity, both required in the permit.
Furthermore, the AQMD issued a compliance notice ordering the company to conduct a source test, usually run by hired party, for the air pollution control system to zero in on the faulty structures.
The Health and Safety Code section 39650 requires industries that use ethylene oxide, which is used to destroy bacteria, viruses and other germs, to capture fumes and be leak free, document releases, sterilizing cycles and record the total pounds purchased of the chemical per calendar year with a monthly breakdown.
Four onsite tests were conducted on an open parking lot on March 22, 27, 28 and May 5, resulting with outdoor readings ranging from 18 to 103 parts per billion of the pollutant, well above the 3.18 ppb deemed safe by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.
The AQMD also conducted air quality tests on three Maywood sites, one at Maywood Elementary School, another at the intersection of 52nd Street and Carmelita Avenue, and the third at Fruitland and Gifford Avenues, all resulting in safe background levels gauged from 0.02 to 0.08 ppb.
The Sterigenics probe has focused on a wet scrubber, or an air pollution control device used to capture gases mixed with water from industrial exhaust streams installed on a large plant at 4801 E. 50th St.
In a May 6 letter sent to Kevin Wagner, vice president of environmental health and safety of Sterigenics US, the AQMD warned that due to the high levels of ethylene oxide emissions, the industrial site may be designated a “potentially high risk level facility,” and be required to reduce risks within its premises and issue reports of toxic emissions posing risks for humans.
A spokesperson from Sotera Health LLC., the Sterigenics’ parent company, said in a statement that the Vernon facilities meet federal health, occupation and safety standards, and it is confident in the well-being of the neighboring residents.
“South Coast AQMD has indicated that [ethylene oxide] levels in the surrounding residential community are within background levels and below health risk levels established by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment,” the statement read.
“We are committed to continuing to cooperate with SCAQMD and maintaining our longstanding compliance with regulatory requirements as we carry on our critical role meeting healthcare needs in Los Angeles and elsewhere.”
Nonetheless, Maywood residents greeted Hahn and Santiago’s push for a temporary shutdown, and said it was overdue they help mitigate recurrent environmental crises caused by myriad industrial polluters in Vernon.
“I hope they can get to the root of the problem, and if they conclude the [air cleaning] equipment is so defective, the plants should be shut down,” said Maria Limon, who lives three blocks away from the site on 53rd Street and Gifford Avenue. “We are super polluted.”
Maywood City Councilman Eddie de la Riva said that although the ethylene oxide hazard prompted Sterigenics representatives to address the council about their plans to mend airborne chemical leaks, he backs a provisional complete shutdown.
“I’m in favor of a 100% closure until they correct the pollution issues, and make sure they will not return,” said De La Riva. “I’m happy that state and county leaders are paying attention to what is happening in Maywood, because for many years that was not the case.”
At press time, South Coast AQMD staff and Nastri had not returned calls and an email asking what would be the agency’s next step in response to Hahn’s and Santiago’s requests.