CHICAGO (CBS) — Elected officials and community activists from the Willowbrook area on Monday celebrated new legislation to crack down on cancer-causing emissions in Illinois, sparked by a battle with the now-shuttered Sterigenics plant.
It’s being called the strongest law in the nation against carcinogenic emissions. The Matt Haller Act prohibits the use of ethylene oxide by any facility that has egregious violations requiring a seal order.
It also prevents new ethylene oxide medical sterilization facilities from opening within 10 miles of a school or park and within 15 miles of counties with less than 50,000 residents.
The new law is a direct result of the concerns Willowbrook and surrounding communities now live with because of ethylene oxide being reclassified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a cause of cancer.
“This issue does highlight that, for decades, we have had lacking standards, weak standards here around ethylene oxide,” said Illinois State Sen. John Curran (R-Downers Grove), whose district includes Willowbrook. “Through this legislation, we say no more.”
Willowbrook-based Sterigenics has been releasing ethylene oxide for the last 35 years. Sterigenics officials have always said they’ve fully complied with all laws and regulations already on the books.
Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin said, while the new law does not outright prohibit the Sterigenics plant from reopening, he believes the restrictions are strong enough to prevent it from ever releasing ethylene oxide again.
“The burden is extremely high. I can’t pass legislation and say that you’re shut down, but the fact is we can do something else. We can say that if you’re going to operate in the state of Illinois, or across the street, you’re going to have to jump through a lot of hoops,” he said. “I can’t say that they’ll ever open, but it’ll be very difficult for them to open. My personal feeling is they should not open.”
The new law is named for 45-year-old Matt Haller, who passed away in March from stomach cancer. He lived about a mile from Sterigenics, and was the first plaintiff in a lawsuit against Sterigenics to die. Haller first spoke to CBS 2 in January, while undergoing chemotherapy. He wanted to speak out because he was concerned his cancer may have been caused by ethylene oxide from Sterigenics, a medical supply sterilization company.
RELATED: Illinois State Health Department Report Shows Higher Than Normal Number Of Cancer Cases Near Sterigenics | Sterigenics Statement Regarding the Illinois Department of Public Health’s Cancer Incidence Report
The Matt Haller Act became law on Friday, when Gov. JB Pritzker signed the legislation. Durkin, Curran, and other elected officials and community activists celebrated the signing of the law on Monday in Willowbrook.
Haller fought for more government oversight into ethylene oxide emissions while he struggled to live longer and create a few more memories with his wife, Colleen, and his 4-year-old son, Cullen.
Haller’s widow, Colleen, choked up as she thanked the governor and lawmakers for approving the new law. She said she was proud of her husband for sharing his story, and for fighting to protect his community from toxic emissions.
“For all of you that knew Matt really well, he had a great love for politics. I feel like he should be here right now celebrating with us, but I know he’s watching over us right now,” she said. “This bill will be an everlasting legacy as a father, a husband, and a loyal member of our community.”
Willowbrook Mayor Frank Trilla said he’s never been so proud to be mayor, stating WIllowbrook was the first town in the nation to do ambient indoor testing for ethylene oxide.
“This is a great law. This law is strong,” he added. “I know that our job is not done as a local municipality. So we will continue to tighten whatever spaces have been left open, if any, and we will continue to watch this on the federal level.”
RELATED: Former Sterigenics Worker Tells Of Leaking Ethylene Oxide At Plant | Sterigenics Loses Round One At Federal Hearing Against Illinois EPA | Illinois EPA Orders Sterigenics To Halt Sterilization Operations Using Ethylene Oxide
Congressman Dan Lipinski (D-Western Springs) praised the bipartisan effort over the past year to draft and pass the new state law.
“This is the way things should go. This is the way politics and government should work with people working together and working with the community to get things done,” he said.
Lipinski said he would continue working at the federal level to protect communities across the U.S. from toxic emissions.