The state of Georgia wants a judge to temporarily shut down sterilization operations at the Becton Dickinson plant in Covington, a dramatic escalation in enforcement against the company that comes days after air test results near the plant showed elevated levels of ethylene oxide.
State Attorney General Chris Carr filed the complaint late Monday in Newton County Superior Court on behalf of Gov. Brian Kemp and state environmental regulators, citing a recent leak of the toxic gas that took place over an eight-day period. The complaint alleges violations of the Georgia Air Quality Act and faults BD for failing to report the leak of 54.5 pounds of ethylene oxide from Sept. 15-22.
The complaint alleges BD “failed to recognize or disclose the duration and extent of the release,” initially stating it lasted only one day and totaled two pounds. During the time of the release, the state alleges, BD was not in compliance with its permit requirements to destroy more than 99 percent of ethylene oxide used.
BD contends it reported the release even though it wasn’t required to because the amount of the gas released each day of the leak was below regulatory thresholds.
The complaint will be heard before a judge at a time to be determined. But the state wants BD’s operations suspended until the company can prove that it has reformed its operations and upgraded its emissions controls.
“After months of failed negotiations, empty promises, and misleading reports of ethylene oxide leaks, we have filed a Temporary Restraining Order to suspend operations at the BD facility in Covington,” Gov. Brian Kemp said in a statement. “Our top priority is the health and well-being of Georgia families. This measure is necessary to ensure transparency and prevent behavior that threatens the safety of employees and the community.”
In a statement, BD said it operates safely and in full compliance with its permits and will “vigorously defend” itself. The company accused Kemp and other officials of “ignoring science” and putting patients who need sterilized medical devices at risk.
“The Attorney General’s action is an unnecessary move given the company’s high level of cooperation and is inconsistent with our continued dialogue with the state to implement voluntary improvements at our Covington facility,” the company's statement said.
BD and fellow medical sterilizer Sterigenics in Cobb County have come under scrutiny since July when media reports highlighted a 2018 federal Environmental Protection Agency assessment that flagged areas near the plants for the potential for high cancer risk caused by long-term exposure to ethylene oxide, or EtO.
Subsequent mathematical modeling using the companies’ self-reported emissions data by the state Environmental Protection Division narrowed the concern to areas immediately around the plants. Both BD and Sterigencis have committed to installing millions of dollars in new emission controls as part of receiving new operating permits.
Sterigenics’ operations are currently suspended, and the company is battling Cobb County over its building permit.
Last week, the city of Covington asked BD to suspend operations after results of seven days of air testing near the plant found elevated levels of ethylene oxide above EPA screening guidelines. The leak overlapped with several days of air testing.
BD officials refused. Ethylene oxide levels recorded in Covington are well below federal workplace guidelines, the company said, and the release was not a threat to public health. Industry groups contend the EPA guidelines are far too strict.
At a Covington City Council meeting Monday night, the state’s complaint received a rousing ovation.
“We are going to work with BD towards a solution that is best for this community,” Mayor Ronnie Johnston said. “This is by no means done, but this process has taken a giant step in the right direction.”
Jason McCarthy, who runs the Covington chapter of an activist group called Stop EtO, told the council: “You guys did what no one else in this area wanted to do and that’s lead. And that wasn’t easy.”