Cobb County improperly shuttered Sterigenics plant, judge rules

Feb. 20—A federal judge has sided with Sterigenics in ruling that Cobb County improperly shuttered the company's Smyrna plant by requiring it obtain a new certificate of occupancy in 2019.

But though Judge Sarah Geraghty will allow the plant to continue operating, she declined to take on more expansive legal questions which might have shielded Sterigenics from future regulation.

The legal dispute stemmed from 2020, when Sterigenics sued the county after Fire Marshal Nick Dawe and Chief Building Officer Kevin Gobble tried to force the firm to obtain a new certificate of occupancy amid renovations of the facility.

The dispute came as Sterigenics was facing heightened scrutiny over its use of ethylene oxide, a known carcinogen, in the sterilization of the medical equipment.

In July 2019, a joint report from WebMD and Georgia Health News revealed the Environmental Protection Agency had identified two census tracts near the Smyrna facility with elevated health risks from airborne toxins. Air quality testing near the Smyrna plant found levels of ethylene oxide up to 395 times higher than what federal regulators deem acceptable.

The news provoked public outrage, and hundreds of residents and workers sued the firm for their alleged exposure to the toxins. Others have since filed lawsuits arguing the public health concerns damaged their home values.

Against that backdrop, the dispute over the certificate of occupancy culminated in October 2019 when the county ordered the plant to cease operations.

Sterigenics argued the county's demand for a new certificate was motivated "not by any interest in enforcing compliance with the applicable codes, but by mounting political pressure following news stories linking Sterigenics' plant to increased cancer risks in the area," Geraghty wrote.

The closure would only last about six months, as a court allowed the plant to resume operations during the onset of the pandemic and nationwide medical supplies shortage in March 2020. The legal dispute remained on hold.

Geraghty agreed the county had misapplied its own code during renovations and improperly forced Sterigenics to obtain a new certificate of occupancy.

She declined, however, to take up Sterigenics' further requests that it be shielded from future interference, writing the firm's claims "do not create a right not to be regulated." And Geraghty left open the door to future challenges to the firm's certificate of occupancy on other grounds.

A spokesperson for Sterigenics did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

In a statement issued Friday, Chairwoman Lisa Cupid said the Cobb County attorney's office was evaluating the ruling.

"I recognize the order will allow the facility to continue operating; however, I also note the Court expressly recognized Sterigenics did not present any evidence that our Fire Marshal or Chief Building Official 'acted other than in good faith and in keeping with their professional responsibilities,'" Cupid said. "The order makes it clear that the county will still have the opportunity to monitor the facility and ensure it operates in the interest of public safety."

Sterigenics continues to face additional lawsuits from residents, workers, and homeowners over its emissions of ethylene oxide, which are still working their way through the legal system.