CHICAGO (CBS) -- A local company accused of dumping toxic chemicals for decades took extraordinary steps to cover up the release of a cancer-causing gas and secretly operated other facilities in the suburbs, according to court filings and former workers.
According to the ex employees and documents, the practices by Willowbrook-based Sterigenics potentially exposed even more residents to toxins than previously thought.
Matt Haller, 45, lived about a mile from the Sterigenics facility in Willowbrook and now has stage-four stomach cancer. The married father of a four-year old has lost 75 pounds, as the cancer ravaged his body.
He was healthy and active, and enjoyed playing hockey. He loved his career at ESPN in sales.
"I had a future that had success written on it, and now I have no future," he told CBS 2.
Now he is fighting to stay alive long enough to make a few more memories with his greatest loves, his wife, Colleen, and son, Cullen.
He and other cancer patients want to know whether a chemical spewed by Sterigenics, a medical equipment sterilization company, made them sick.
"To think this company could have been literally behind my death is shocking. It's utterly shocking," Haller said.
Former Sterigenics employees allege the company ordered workers to dump toxic chemicals directly into the public sewer system. It also covered up just how much was released into the air, including cancer-causing ethylene oxide, they say. It is the main ingredient used to sterilize medical equipment, such as surgical tools.
According to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, the chemical is linked to several cancers. The CBS 2 Investigators obtained documents showing the EPA warned the company 35 years ago that ethylene oxide caused stomach cancer.
"If they were responsible someone should go to jail," Haller said.
Former workers, who do not want to be identified, accused the company of improperly dumping ethylene oxide and ethylene glycol.
One former Sterigenics worker said the chemical would be washed directly into the factory drains.
"The people in the back would call it chamber scum," said one former worker. "It was really nasty. They would have us scrub it out, hose it down and squeegee it right into the drainage pits."
Workers say plant supervisors would dump ethylene oxide's byproduct-- ethylene glycol--down the public sewer drains to avoid the cost of shutting down operations. Ethylene glycol is found in anti-freeze.
To avoid plant shutdowns, former workers say, the company manipulated alarm systems meant to warn workers when they were over-exposed to chemicals.
The workers say they know of colleagues who have died of cancer. They, too, fear getting sick someday.
"One time I'll go to the doctor and they will say, 'You have cancer,' '' said one worker. "Just like a ticking time bomb in you."
Even when the warning monitors did go off, work still did not stop, one worker said.
In a declaration filed in federal court by the law firm of Hart, McLaughlin and Eldridge against Sterigenics on behalf of Haller and other alleged victims, a forklift operator said there were frequent warnings, but he was repeatedly told to ignore it, not talk about it and just deal with it or find work elsewhere.
He said he was told to just open the doors and let the gas out.
"Those who weren't wearing a mask would have to evacuate the areas," the worker said. "However, it happened so many times you'd be like, 'Just leave the doors open, it will clear out.' "
Workers say fumes were often sent out without going thru scrubbers to filter the chemical.
"There'd be a vent in the back of the chamber that would open up and the blower would kick on and it was made to suck out any extra fumes," a worker said.
They say dangerous vapors also poured out after sterilized products sat in ventilation rooms. It's a process called off-gassing. However, the doors to those rooms often were left open, spewing high levels of gas throughout the plant. As a solution, the workers were told to simply open all the overhead doors to get rid of the gas.
Katherine Howard has lived seven blocks from Sterigenics main plant in Willowbrook since 2002. She, like Haller, who also lives in Willowbrook, has stomach cancer and needs a feeding machine to live.
"There's not a day that goes by that I'm not in pain," she said. "And my fear is that it's inside of each of my children just waiting."
She has devoted her life to digging through every public record available.
She blames Sterigenics for her cancer.
She said she blames the EPA, too.
"They're the ones that are regulating," she said. "They're the ones that are giving them the operating permits."
In fact, all the way back in 1984, the EPA knew the chemicals were linked to cancer and warned the company when it wanted to add more sterilization chambers. Then, the company was known as Griffith Laboratories.
According to a 1984 Illinois EPA letter, the agency warned the company that the 40 tons of ethylene oxide released the previous year, was "several magnitudes higher than desirable." The company was warned at that time that ethylene oxide could cause cancers of the pancreas, bladder, brain, and stomach. According to the letter, the EPA found the company was releasing it at levels 14 times to 445 times the acceptable level for people in a one-mile radius around the plant.
There are reportedly 20,000 people in that mile radius, including schools and parks.
"They knew," Howard said. "They knew"
The EPA allowed the company to expand, despite those numbers.
"They're the ones who are responsible for protecting the residents," Howard said.
The company was ordered by the EPA to test for ethylene oxide emissions and provide a report a year later.
CBS 2 requested that report, but the EPA said it does not have a record of it.
"Whether they did it intentionally or unintentionally, they [the EPA] failed us," Howard said.
Howard plans to sue Sterigenics and is represented by the law firm of Salvi, Schostok and Pritchard.
Former workers say the state and federal EPA oversight was a joke.
"I don't think [the company] really cared," one worker said.
The state EPA allowed the company to do its own emission testing and reporting. The agency allowed it, despite the fact that the federal EPA in 2002 accused the company of failing to install monitoring systems and keep emission records.
"God forbid if they're doing what they say they're doing and they're poisoning the community then they need to pay and I don't mean monetarily I mean they need to pay ethically - they need to people need to be going to jail," Haller told CBS 2 Investigator Dave Savini.
"They are the black eye of corporate America," said one former worker.
Kathleen Hoffman, Sterigenics Senior Vice President for Global Environment and Safety and Technical Services, refused to be interviewed for this story. She has worked for the company since the 1990s.
CBS 2 has learned there were three more warehouses where the former workers say the deadly gas was leaking.
Before Sterigenics built their second warehouse in Willowbrook, they used three other places to handle all the overflow. CBS 2 could find no record the EPA ever inspected them. These warehouses were all within a mile of Sterigenics. One was on the 7300 block of South Quincy Street in Willowbrook. Two more were in Burr Ridge--one on Shore Drive and the other on Heathrow Court. All within a few blocks of homes.
According to former workers, skids of freshly sterilized medical equipment would be sent there to air out the saturated ethylene oxide. It can take up to seven days, all the while emitting toxic vapors. The former workers say those additional warehouses were not equipped to handle those kinds of vapors.
Shawn Collins is one of 30 attorneys working together on behalf of people with illnesses tied to ethylene oxide exposure.
"If that's what went on, then hell is not hot enough for them," he said. "If a company is falsifying reports, disregarding reports, operating in a way that is not allowed by law. It's breaking the law."
A 1998 Securities and Exchange Commission report written by the company when owned by Griffith Microscience International Inc. lays out the dangers of cancer to workers and others. It also warned that if the government imposed more regulations, it could "result in fines, adverse publicity and increased capital and operating costs ... and could force the company to alter or cease the operation of one or more of its facilities."
Workers say the gas even stayed on their clothes when they went home. The only protective gear they received? Gas masks.
Workers who complained were fired, one ex-employee said.
Sterigenics denies all claims it dumped illegally or outside of any the controlled limits set by regulatory agencies, and has no evidence to support any rigging of monitors to protect worker safety. The company says it never off-gassed at any other warehouses and all ventilation of product occurred in rooms equipped to do so. A company representative says Sterigenics will vigorously defend itself in court. (Read the full statement here)
In a statement, the Illinois EPA said:
"The Illinois EPA takes all allegations seriously, including claims of a historic nature. The Agency will fully investigate any claims being made against this facility. We continue to work closely with the Illinois Attorney General's Office in the ongoing case against Sterigenics and remain committed to providing a resolution to the residents of Willowbrook and surrounding communities."
As the legal battles continue and as her husband fights for his life and grows weaker by the day, Colleen Haller is worried about the health of her son.
"I want to know the truth I want to make sure my son is OK," she said.
Mr. Haller becomes emotional as he thinks about his son.
"My son is four years old and he is right at that stage, is he going to remember me?"
"I'm not going to be able to teach him to play hockey. So much loss. You know when you look forward, you just see loss."
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