WILLOWBROOK, Ill. — WGN Investigates has learned of a secret meeting and an offer of money from Sterigenics as the company looks to put some of its problems behind them.
The EPA is planning to meet with Willowbrook residents Thursday night to discuss Sterigenics, but WGN Investigates learned of a meeting not open to the public that shows how the company was operating behind-the-scenes.
The Sterigenics plant in the west suburban village was shut down last February after the US Environmental Protection Agency found it released high levels of a cancer-causing gas known as ethylene oxide.
The company uses the gas to sterilize medical equipment used in hospitals. For months, the community of Willowbrook protested the company, saying the emissions were making people sick.
The closing of the company by Governor JB Pritzker was seen as a victory for environmental activists and for the Village of Willowbrook. Behind the scenes, however, the company has been working to reopen the plant.
WGN Investigates has learned of a secret meeting to talk about a deal in late June. In that meeting, an offer was made for Sterigenics to pay the village $600,000.
A source tells WGN Investigates that public officials including the Willowbrook mayor, the village manager, a trustee; representatives from the DuPage County state’s attorney and the Illinois attorney general were present.
A second source confirmed Willowbrook’s mayor later rejected the offer, a spokesman for DuPage County State’s Attorney Bob Berlin said any reports of a payment offer were inaccurate. He declined further comment.
The Illinois Attorney General also would not confirm or deny a meeting, however they said money offers have nothing to do with the plant re-opening.
Two-and-a-half weeks after the meeting, the company issued a statement saying it had reached an agreement with the Illinois attorney general that, “ends all litigation and enforcement actions pending with Illinois without penalty or finding of fault."
In the proposed consent decree, a binding agreement between the State of Illinois and “Sterigenics U.S., LLC” that has to be approved by a judge, states Sterigenics, “shall contribute $300,000” to various projects in the Willowbrook community, like “physical improvements or activities, such as educational scholarships or programming.”
To reopen, the company would promise to implement, “additional capture and control measures” to keep harmful emissions out of the air.
Three state lawmakers that represent willowbrook and nearby communities have filed a brief asking that the consent decree be rejected.
Governor JB Pritzker told WGN Investigates Thursday that the proposed consent decree would be stricter than any currently proposed legislation.
In response to the reported $600,000 offer, activist Meringa Zymancius with Stop Sterigenics said:
“$600,000 wouldn’t cover medical expenses for a lifetime of fighting cancer — for one person. It wouldn’t cover a life for Matt Haller’s son. Their poison reaches 20 miles out. Coming from a $5 billion dollar parent company, they might as well spit in our face,” Zymancius said.
An attorney for Stop Sterigenics told WGN Investigates that offers of money won’t solve the problem, only the plant’s permanent closing will.
“There is no amount of money that could ever fix this, but they could go away," said attorney Margie Donnell.
At the meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, EPA officials will be taking public comment on their proposed new controls on emissions for the Sterigenics facility in Willowbrook.
Correction: Our 6 p.m. on-air report of this story contained a graphic reading ”Sterigenics Offered $600,000 to Willowbrook Officials to Reopen Plant” concerning a private meeting with village, county and state officials. Sterigenics, which did not attend the meeting, denies it offered $600,000 to the village to withdraw its opposition to reopening the facility. Our 6 p.m. report should have included the company’s denial, and WGN regrets the inaccurate graphic. As noted in the 6 p.m. report, Sterigenics later signed a consent agreement with the Illinois Attorney General’s office, subject to court approval, in which it will pay $300,000 to benefit the village. The agreement could lead to reopening of the plant if conditions in the consent agreement are met.