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Chemistry Lessons - 11/28

By Rich Trzupek

 Now that the great Willowbrook fright-fest of 2018 has been exposed as the sham that it was, perhaps some of the institutions we count on to represent our best interests will have learned a lesson. Long before the last nail in the coffin – the revelation of faulty lab work – was driven home, air quality professionals like myself understood this was an utterly phony crisis. The hysteria in Willowbrook started with bureaucratic bumbling, was exasperated by journalistic incompetence and reached a fever pitch when the politicians and their handlers smelled fear among the populace they could exploit.

 There will be plenty of finger pointing in the weeks to come, but to me everyone is at fault: USEPA for performing sloppy work that was sloppily presented; the paper that used to be the Chicago Tribune for continuing to allow reporter Michael Hawthorne to twist environmental stories in ways that serve his personal agenda; Attorney General Lisa Madigan for filing a baseless lawsuit without any referral and every member of the General Assembly who monkey-piled on a company in full compliance with its regulatory obligations.

 We’ll get busy further shaming all of the above shortly, but let’s first give a big shout-out, high-five, raise-the-roof note of appreciation to the one institution that comes out of this pile of horse-pucky smelling like a rose: the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, or as we like to call them “IEPA”. 

 God knows I’ve had my run-ins with people at IEPA over a 35 year career, but I also respect them as hard-working, fair-minded people who have a tough job to do. They stood up to the pressure to refer the Willowbrook fiasco to the Attorney General for the very good reason that Sterogenics was and is in full compliance with its permit conditions and other regulatory obligations. That did not keep the AG from filing a lawsuit on her own accord of course. She’s a Madigan – the rules don’t apply.

 A few things you should know about ethylene oxide. It’s a commonly used, enormously useful chemical. It is both naturally occurring and it is synthesized for industrial use. You, me and Charley who lives in the house where Beth and Tony used to live down the street are exposed to infinitesimal concentration of ethylene oxide and other potential carcinogens every day.

 Ethylene oxide is among 187 potentially toxic airborne compounds regulated under the Clean Air Act as Hazardous Air Pollutants, or HAPs. Some HAPs are relatively more toxic than ethylene oxide, some less so. Many HAPs are emitted by many more sources than those that emit ethylene oxide, some are not. Many HAPs are emitted in far greater quantities than ethylene oxide, others aren’t.

 The USEPA administers a vast national program to ensure that HAP emissions are controlled using the best technology available, that these controls are properly operated and periodically checked to make sure that the HAP emissions that do occur do not present any unacceptable risk to the public.

 Which is pretty much what USEPA was doing with the Willowbrook data – checking for residual risk. Where they screwed up, in my opinion and that of many others in my biz, was first by not offering any of the context I just provided.Second, they did not emphasize they threw out the majority (21 of 39) of samples taken because the ethylene oxides concentrations were too low. (We call that cherry picking folks). Third, they didn’t properly explain that you can’t draw long-term conclusions about health risks from short-term sampling. And finally, they didn’t explain that the supposed unacceptable cancer risk presented by the (now known to be flawed) ethylene oxide analyses only applied if a resident basically stood in the same spot at which the sample was taken and remained there for 33 years. 

 I knew all of this the minute the story broke. Other professionals in the environmental world knew it too. And, I’m convinced Michael Hawthorne was aware of all the above as well. Hawthorne is a devious reporter who uses just enough weasel language far enough down in the story to cover his butt. He chooses to de-emphasize those kinds of facts and his editors at the Trib let him get away with it. I can only assume that Hawthorne’s chummy relationship with environmental NGOs like the Environmental Law and Policy Center and the Sierra Club is at the root of his decision to behave like an advocate instead of a journalist.

 Which brings us to those knuckleheads down in Springfield.Listen up kiddies: 1) You don’t pick one of 187 HAPs and decide it’s the threat of the century without doing at least a modicum of homework. 2) You especially don’t do so because some idiot reporter with an axe to grind stirs up a crap-storm of hysteria. 3) If you want to address toxic air emissions in Illinois, then do so like the grown-up states do: create a state air toxics program that fairly applies to all air toxics, not just the flavor of the month.

 Mind you, I’m not urging you to create a state air toxics program kiddies, because I believe the federal program is plenty protective. But, some states decide they want a state program too. I don’t think you nit-wits are capable of designing a program that would make sense, but if you do, that’s more work for me. To repeat, what you don’t do is try to pass a bill to over-regulate a single HAP you didn’t even know existed a few months ago. 

 But there I go again, expecting everyone to behave like grown-ups.


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