Why business-friendly Georgia got tough on environmental regulation

Why We Wrote This

Should public health be weighed against support for jobs and businesses? In Covington, Georgia, the choice was made clear with mounting evidence of toxic emissions by one medical tech plant.

John Bazemore/AP
The Becton, Dickinson and Co. medical sterilization facility in Covington, Georgia, one of the area's largest employers, was temporarily shut down by the state because the facility was leaking a gas that studies have linked to an increased risk of cancer.

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The company said its toxic gas emissions were within legal limits – and the state took its word. Then, citizens got involved and started testing the air themselves, prompting the city to do the same. That's when Georgia officials moved to shutter the medical sterilization plant for a week.

In some ways, the decision runs headlong against a deregulatory mood in Washington, where the Environmental Protection Agency has spent the past three years rolling back pollution controls in the name of business-friendly deregulation. Yet the situation has highlighted a countercurrent. The same values that led many voters here to support President Donald Trump – suspicion of an elite government, a nostalgia for the past – is merging with the dynamics of an American Deep South grown increasingly wealthy, politically diverse, and sensitive to environmental dangers.

The government's muscular response suggests, to some, a recognition not just of potential voter backlash, but ethical duty. “We are now detecting a little bit of shift in that attitude ... that they [are now] actually going to do something to protect Georgians,” says one activist. “At least I have not felt hopeless about it.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had known for a year that Covington, Georgia, had become a hotbed for a toxic gas by the time Mayor Ronnie Johnston and the city council hired a company to test the air.

The delay wasn’t foot dragging on the city’s part. But it was residents, alerted by a WebMD article, who found “strange hot spots” using their own sensors which suggested ethylene oxide (EtO) was escaping from a medical sterilizing plant that used the gas.

Becton, Dickinson and Co. (BD) insisted that its emissions were well within its permitted limit, even as another company, Sterigenics, voluntarily closed its plant in Smyrna to address the same gas concerns. 

At first, state regulators took the company’s word for it. Residents weren’t that surprised, since Georgia has a reputation as the No. 1 business-friendly state in the country.

But this fall, the state’s tone shifted as the disparity between the plant’s safety claims and the results of independent tests grew ever starker. In late October, the state filed suit against BD for noncompliance, forcing a temporary shutdown.

Mayor Johnston, who has focused on economic development to relieve local poverty, called it a “real booger of a situation,” pitting a powerful jobs-creator against the health of the community. The plant, which employs nearly 900 people at solid wages, “has been an excellent partner with us for 27 years,” he says, “but this was about the future of our town.”

In some ways, Georgia’s decision to shutter a noncompliant polluter runs headlong against a deregulatory mood in Washington, where the EPA has spent the past three years systematically rolling back pollution controls in the name of business-friendly deregulation.

Yet the situation in Georgia has highlighted a countercurrent. Perhaps surprisingly to some, the same values that led many voters here to support Mr. Trump – suspicion of an elite government, a nostalgia for the past – is merging with the dynamics of a Deep South grown increasingly wealthy, politically diverse, and sensitive to environmental dangers.

“There is no doubt an element of conservative populism is at work [in the plant closings]: the suspicion of those in power, the belief that the system isn’t working to protect regular folks,” says Kurt Ebersbach, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, who says he has never seen such a muscular response to a polluter during 20 years working in Georgia.

To be sure, says Mr. Ebersbach, Georgia regulators still see polluting industries as “customers” in need of permitting service. But the crackdown suggests “a growing sense among conservatives in our state that support for industry and jobs need not come at the expense of public health.”

Some states – mostly blue ones – had held public hearings about the dangers of EtO and plans for remediation. But in Georgia, residents sounded the alarm. Through this past summer, the state maintained that the company was in compliance with state regulations. The city’s testing, however, found amounts at some locations in concentrations over 200 times the EPA’s level of concern. 

A thousand boos

For residents, a growing sense that regulators may be holding industry interests above those of the public has fueled outrage in Covington and beyond. When Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division Director Rick Dunn appeared at a recent town hall on the EtO emissions, he later told friends he faced “a thousand boos.”

“The public carries around this idea that these men and women are supposed to be working for us, and protecting us, that’s their job,” says Sid Shapiro, a regulatory law professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. “So how do those agencies get away with ... failing to protect the public? The answer is, out of sight, out of mind. It is so hard for the average person to monitor the activities of a state regulator that these things go unnoticed until ... it blows up, sometimes literally.”

In 2016, residents in Jesup, Georgia, in rural Wayne County, brought out the figurative pitchforks when a newspaper published quiet plans to ship toxin-laden coal ash to a local landfill. A subsequent investigation showed that 800,000 tons had already been shipped, and that some of that had seeped into the groundwater. Much like in Covington, the coal ash scandal was dominated by people with some of the same complaints that animated Trump voters: A sense of communal loss due to government malfeasance and disdain for the plight of average Americans. 

“The paradoxical thing is Wayne County is ultra-conservative,” says retired Jesup teacher Peggy Riggins, who led an effort to stop the permit for the coal ash dump. “Eighty percent of the voters were for Trump. Many associate environmentalism with liberals or Democrats. But when our community was threatened by toxic coal ash ... they weren’t going to have the second largest landfill company in the United States, run out of Arizona, come in here and ruin our community.”

Still, there is little evidence of a political groundswell for more proactive environmental regulations, says Mr. Ebersbach. But Gov. Brian Kemp’s muscular response suggests, to some, a recognition not just of potential voter backlash, but ethical duty.

The plant closures suggest that “we are now detecting a little bit of shift in that attitude ... that they [are now] actually going to do something to protect Georgians,” says Ms. Riggins. “At least I have not felt hopeless about it.”

Rebuilding trust

The closures in Georgia came after more liberal states – Colorado, Illinois, and Michigan – had confronted polluting industries in the wake of the 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment, released in 2018. In Michigan, air testing found far higher concentrations of EtO than industry had been reporting. Concerned about liability and public panic, regulators nevertheless publicized their findings in public hearings.

Given “the studies that have been done showing increased concerns to exposure and then the noncompliance issues, we thought it was in the community’s best interest to have that conversation – to let them know what we had found and also what we were planning to do to address it,” says Chris Etheridge, a regulator in Michigan. “And, yeah, I would argue that the community did freak out.”

Evidence suggests that Georgia lawmakers are learning similar lessons about transparency and faith in the public – that withholding information is worse than risking confusion or hysteria. “We screwed up,” the Environmental Protection Division admitted at a recent public hearing. That public admission took many residents aback – and helped rebuild trust, says Mayor Johnston.

More recently, says Mr. Ebersbach, Georgia conservatives have begun demanding clean energy “as a matter of self-determination, property rights, and a distrust of monopoly energy providers.” Bubba McDonald, a Republican and chair of the Georgia Public Service Commission, is a major booster of solar power. And the Georgia House speaker rebuilt the budget of a gutted chemical response team.

On Nov. 7, Governor Kemp held a luncheon for State Rep. Bill Werkheiser, who is pushing a transparency law to alert residents of public health issues posed by industry.

The post-World War II economy “started lifting the South out of the Depression,” says Mark Woodall, legislative affairs director for the Sierra Club’s Atlanta office. “And the attitude was, ‘Come on in. We’re not going to be too picky. We’re not going to be pro-union and not too much about environmental regulations.’ But that has changed. People are no longer willing to take just anything.”

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