WILLOWBROOK, Ill. (CBS) — After a monthslong fight over dangerous ethylene oxide emissions at its medical sterilization plant in Willowbrook, Sterigenics announced Monday it is giving up its fight to reopen the facility, and will be leaving Willowbrook altogether.
“Today is a great day in the Village of Willowbrook,” said Willowbrook Mayor Frank Trilla. “We received notification around 1 o’clock that Sterigenics has decided to take their business elsewhere.”
The Willowbrook plant has been closed since February after air quality tests by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency found high levels of ETO, or ethylene oxide, a chemical linked to some types of cancer.
Sterigenics had reached a court-enforced agreement with the state earlier this month to allow the plant to possibly reopen in the future, but only after clearing several hurdles. The plant would only have been allowed to resume operations with new equipment that would drastically reduce emissions to no more than 85 pounds per year, down from 4,600 pounds released in 2017.
While the company said the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency had approved its permit to install “additional control measures” at the plant, the company said it was opting instead to leave Willowbrook, due to other obstacles.
“Sterigenics could not reach an agreement to renew the lease on its Quincy Street facility in Willowbrook in the present environment. Given the unstable legislative and regulatory landscape in Illinois, Sterigenics will not pursue reopening of its second location on Midway Drive in Willowbrook,” the company announced in a statement Monday afternoon.
The company had repeatedly denied its plant posed any danger to the community, and had dropped a lawsuit against the state after reaching a consent agreement with the Illinois Attorney General’s office and DuPage County State’s Attorney’s office, but said even with that deal in place could not reach a constructive solution that would allow its Willowbrook plant to reopen.
“Unfortunately, inaccurate and unfounded claims regarding Sterigenics and the unstable legislative and regulatory landscape in Illinois have created an environment in which it is not prudent to maintain these critical sterilization operations in Willowbrook,” the company stated.
As CBS 2’s Mike Puccinelli reported Monday evening, activists declared victory – saying it was their fight against Sterigenics that led to the decision.
Yasmeen Harrison’s father, Ivan, said news of Sterigenics’ departure couldn’t have come soon enough. In August, he said no level of ethylene oxide ever should have been allowed to be released by any company, especially in areas near homes and schools. Yasmeen was diagnosed with multiple cancers, and went to grade schools near Sterigenics, and now attends high school just up the road.
“It’s just too close, and it’s exposing too many people; you know, young innocent kids,” he said.
While his daughter has been fighting leukemia, and now is in remission, there are many who came forward to tell their stories, like 15-year-old Julian Glick, who was diagnosed with leukemia when he was in 6th grade.
“Every time I went to the hospital, I just had like a terrible feeling in my stomach,” he said. “I didn’t know if i was going to come back. I thought I was going to die. It was a very scary feeling.”
Heather Schumacher also grew up near Sterigenics. She came forward to tell her story, because she believes her cancer is a direct result of ethylene oxide emitted by the company.
For decades, the company used the gas – which is linked to cancer – to sterilize medical equipment.
Schumacher grew up three blocks away from the plant. In 2007, she was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma.
In March, a study released by the Illinois Department of Public Health released on cancers in the area around Willowbrook revealed a 90% increase in Hodgkins lymphoma in the Willowbrook area.
A school principal in Barrington, Schumacher is now in remission, and suing Sterigenics over her cancer.
“My biggest fear is that I will not be around to see my children one day,” she said.
She said she hopes the newly-created Matt Haller Act, which puts strict regulations on the use of ethylene oxide, will make other companies that use the gas think twice before locating in Illinois.
Haller lived about a mile away from the Sterigenics plant, and got stomach cancer. He wanted to know if it was from the ethylene oxide emissions from the facility.
“I’ve melted down to nothing. I’ve got nothing left,” he said. “Everything needs to be uncovered here. Everything needs to be uncovered.”
Haller died in March, a day and a half after his last interview with CBS 2 Investigator Dave Savini. It was a conversation he wanted to have, and even as he struggled physically, he was clear-minded and still fighting.
Haller was thankful to whistleblowers who came forward earlier this year to CBS 2. They alleged the company cut corners on safety, and released ethylene oxide without properly filtering it.
Illinois State Rep. Jim Durkin sponsored the ethylene oxide legislation and named it after Haller. Approved by state lawmakers and the governor earlier this year, it put the toughest restrictions in the country on companies that use ethylene oxide, making it extremely difficult for companies that use it to operate in Illinois.
“I think that having these restrictions is going to change everything,” said Haller’s brother, Wally. He said the new law is a good start on tracking emissions and prohibiting companies from using the gas within 10 miles of schools.
“It’s heartbreaking, because I don’t want to see anyone else to go through with what my brother just went through,” Wally said.
As CBS 2’s Mike Puccinelli reported Monday evening, Wally Haller added that he wished his brother had been present to see the day Sterigenics shut down.
“It’s bittersweet,” he said.
Wally watched in agony as his younger brother wasted away. But he’s convinced that Matt is looking down on him right now with that broad smile once again on his face.
“I definitely know he’s been watching over to make sure that place didn’t open up again,” Wally Haller said.
With the words “Haller strong” emblazoned across his chest, Wally believes the Sterigenics closure amounts to his brother’s final act for the hometown he loved.
“It would mean a lot to him to know that something came from what he battled through and the experience he had with his cancer,” Wally Haller said.
Haller’s widow, Colleen, also expressed relief.
“We can sleep at night. Our community’s safe. My son is safe. My husband’s watching over us. It’s his honor. It’s his legacy,” she said. “I’m so incredibly happy. I know he’s happy, and I know she’s watching right now.”
The Hallers and others want to do what they say they did for Willowbrook for the rest of the country, by pushing for what they hope will one day be a national ban on ethylene oxide.
Sterigenics has denied all claims made by whistleblowers and says it followed all regulations.
A seal order by the EPA in February shut down the company’s use of ethylene oxide.
Sterigenics faces multiple lawsuits from people who live nearby who have said they are now suffering cancer caused by ethylene oxide emissions from the plant.
DuPage County Board Chariman welcomed the news of Sterigenics’ planned departure from Willowbrook.
“We are pleased to know our efforts to advocate for and protect the public health and safety of our residents living and working near this facility have been successful. We commend local lawmakers, municipal leaders and thousands of local residents, who never tired in their efforts to raise awareness and push for clean air and a healthy environment for DuPage families,” Cronin said in a statement.
U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Illinois) also applauded the news of Sterigenics’ plan to leave Willowbrook.
“Today’s news marks a victory for everyone who lives in the vicinity of Sterigenics!” Lipinski said in a statement. “This decision by Sterigenics to shut down their Willowbrook plant shows what can happen when public officials on all levels work together along with concerned citizens to protect the health and safety of our communities. This fight has been going on for more than a year and has taken a tremendous amount of work by scores of people, but it was worth it to protect families from further exposure to this dangerous cancer-causing agent.”
U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) released a joint statement following the Sterigenics announcement that raised concerns about the Environmental Protection Agency on the national level:
“This is welcome news for Willowbrook residents, but we remain troubled that the Trump EPA was content remaining on the sidelines instead of taking action on this public health crisis. The agency’s lack of urgency to use its authority to issue updated federal emission standards for ethylene oxide, and its continued refusal to monitor ethylene oxide emissions in Lake County, are an abdication of its responsibility to Illinois residents—and all Americans. We will keep pushing U.S. EPA to do its job.”