Cheap Seats 2018
The Pretender - 12/05
By Rich Trzupek
The term “fake news” is frequently tossed about these days. It serves a purpose I suppose, but I think the term “purposed news” is more descriptive. Tribune reporter Michael Hawthorne’s crusade against one of 187 hazardous air pollutants regulated by the USEPA is a singular example of how a journalist can inject advocacy into what appears to most to be unbiased journalism.
Hawthorne has been playing this game for many years. A great many environmental professionals such as yours truly, in both the public and private sectors by the way, recognize the disingenuous nature of his stories. In my mind, I think of him as The Pretender, as in he’s an advocate for extreme environmental groups masquerading as a reporter. One grows used to his tactics, but he’s taken his game up – or rather down – a notch with the ethylene oxide foolishness.
On Nov. 30 the Trib published a story that Hawthorne penned with the headline “How Ill. Firms found window to vent toxins.” He used the Trib’s ink to create the impression that Illinois allowed companies that use ethylene oxide to spew the chemical into the atmosphere uncontrolled. He implies that the George W. Bush administration was at the root of the problem, because a rule change affecting regulation of ethylene oxide used for sterilization was promulgated when Bush was President. Let’s take a closer look at the story readers, so you can understand how Hawthorne uses the journalistic equivalent of slight-of-hand to deliver purposed news.
Hawthorne: The Bush administration was responsible for the federal rule change in question.
Reality: The change was formally adopted when published in the Federal Register on Nov. 2, 2001, during the Bush administration. However, the work on the rule change began under President Clinton. Simply reading the “Background” section of the Federal Register notice makes it clear whose EPA set the wheels in motion and did the heavy lifting. In it, the EPA said in part:
“On July 11, 1997, we learned of reports of explosions at several ethylene oxide sterilization facilities. Some of the explosions occurred at facilities affected by the ethylene oxide emissions standards. As a result, we took immediate steps to suspend the rule until December 1998 pending an investigation of the explosions and to notify facility owners.”
Hawthorne: The rule change allowed sterilization facilities to emit dangerous ethylene oxide without having to control the chemical.
Reality: The rule change applied to only one very specific, very brief part of the process called “back-venting” that occurs briefly near the end of a process. The sterilization process itself lasts from hours to days and EO emissions were required to be controlled and were controlled during that entire time. That never changed.
But, was uncontrolled back-venting dangerous to neighbors? Again, from the Federal Register notice, EPA said:
“There are negligible environmental, energy, and economic impacts associated with these amendments. Ethylene oxide emissions from the chamber exhaust vent comprise less than 1 percent of the uncontrolled emissions from the sterilization process.”
For those of you unfamiliar with EPA-speak, saying that chamber vent (back-venting) emissions comprise less than 1 percent of uncontrolled emissions, they are saying the emissions will be controlled over 99 percent of the time.
Hawthorne: Notes that Sterigenics can legally emit up to 36,400 pounds of ethylene oxide per year.
Reality: As previously noted ethylene oxide is but one of 187 hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) regulated by the EPA. Some are more toxic, others are less. Many are also carcinogens. It’s true Sterigenics is permitted to emit up to 36,400 pounds of ethylene oxide annually. It’s also true that Sterigenics is required to use a control device to destroy at least 99 percent of ethylene oxide emissions.
But, let’s apply the “Hawthorne standard” to another permit. What would he have to say about a permit that allowed the holder to emit 39,800 pounds of any HAP, without benefit of any control? How about if that same permit allowed facility to emit up to 165,140 pounds per year of volatile organic material, which contributes to smog formation, along with 144,000 lbs per year of particulate matter, which is linked to respiratory problems? Because that’s exactly what the Chicago Tribune printing facility located at 777 W. Chicago Ave., is permitted to emit under the terms of its permit.
Hawthorne: Keeps trying to create the impression that the danger presented by about 6 tons per year of ethylene oxide in the six county Chicago metropolitan area present a unique public health risk that must be addressed.
Reality: Six tons per year of HAP emissions are nothing. Consider a couple of other known carcinogens, benzene and formaldehyde. According to the last (2014) National Emissions Inventory, benzene emission rates in the six country area were 2,062 tons per year and formaldehyde emission rates were 2,400 tons per year. Now, don’t start running in circles and screaming that we’re all going to die from benzene and formaldehyde poisoning. We’re not. I’ve just giving you something that Hawthorne never provides: context and perspective.
And let’s close with this one:
Hawthorne: Continues to point the ethylene oxide reference value and the National Air Toxic Assessment (NATA) as proof positive that people who live in census tracts near Sterigenics are at risk.
Reality: As a study Sterigenics commissioned demonstrated, you pretty much exceed the reference value everywhere in Chicagoland (or any urban area), which why one shouldn’t treat reference values like limits. And as far as using NATA in the way Hawthorne wants to use it, here’s what EPA says at the NATA website:
“NATA assessments should not be used: to pinpoint specific risk values in small areas such a census tract; to characterize or compare risks at local levels (such as between neighborhoods); to characterize or compare risks between states; to examine trends from one NATA year to another; as the sole basis for risk reduction plans or regulations; to control specific sources or pollutants; to quantify benefits of reduced air toxics emissions.”