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Jackson Twp. to enforce zoning violation on facility emitting cancer-causing chemicals

Shown is the exterior of a Jackson Township American Contract Systems facility, a portion of which has been cited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as releasing potentially carcinogenic chemicals. Julia Maruca/Butler Eagle

JACKSON TWP — Township officials are moving to enforce zoning restrictions on a facility within the township cited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as releasing potentially carcinogenic chemicals.

American Contract Systems, Inc., a company based in Minneapolis with a facility in the township at Jackson’s Pointe Commerce Park, 4050 Jackson Pointe Court, is among companies in 23 communities nationwide whose emissions of the chemical ethylene oxide were identified as being at concerning levels for their communities, according to the EPA.

Ethylene oxide, or EtO, typically is used to “make other chemicals and products like antifreeze and plastic bottles, or to sterilize items that can’t be sterilized by steam, such as some types of medical equipment,” according to a statement from the EPA. Ethylene oxide can cause cancer over time, and if people breathe it in over the course of many years, it may increase their risk of cancers of the blood or breast cancer, the EPA’s web page on the chemical explains.

This EPA map shows estimates of lifetime cancer risks from ethylene oxide (EtO) near American Contract Systems Inc. in Zelienople. The area in blue shows estimated lifetime cancer risks of 100 in a million or greater from breathing air containing EtO emitted from the facility (or the same as 1 additional cancer case in 10,000 people). A lifetime cancer risk of 100 in a million means that, if 1 million people were exposed to this level of EtO in the air 24 hours a day for 70 years, 100 people would be expected to develop cancer from that exposure.
Zoning violation

At a meeting Monday night, Jackson Township manager Chris Rearick said because of the emission of ethylene oxide, the facility would be considered a heavy-industry facility as opposed to a light-industry facility, and as such would not fit the zoning district. As such, the facility is in violation of Chapter 27 of the Jackson Township code of ordinances, as such a use is not permitted within the Commercial Corridor zoning district.

“We’re taking the position that it doesn’t fit the zoning district, based on the recent classification of the risks being greater than established. We sent an enforcement notice (Monday), basically saying to cease and desist,” Rearick said. “From a building code standpoint, you’re looking at chemicals that are classed as potentially caustic or volatile. That has an impact on the construction and overall safety from the fire code.”

According to the zoning violation letter sent to the company, ACS must begin actions to correct or remove its “heavy industrial” use at the site within 30 days of the notice. The violation must be corrected or removed within 60 days.

The company has the right to appeal the notice of violation to the Zoning Hearing Board within ten days.

Company’s response

A statement from American Contract Systems sent on Tuesday argued that the inclusion of the Butler County facility in the list of facilities with concerning ethylene oxide levels was “misplaced.” The statement said that the sterilization process used at ACS facilities uses less ethylene oxide than its competitors.

“Our operations in Zelienople emit EtO at levels far below EPA or Pennsylvania regulatory thresholds,” the satement said. “Moreover, and even though it is not required under current law, ACS has been working proactively with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to further reduce our EtO emissions by installing advanced air cleaning technology at our Zelienople site.”

The statement added that the company is aware of the EPA’s assessment of ethylene oxide, and “applauds and supports the EPA’s efforts to protect our environment and the communities we serve.”

“We believe the inclusion of ACS’ Zelienople operations in the EPA’s statement is misplaced, and we look forward to the opportunity to demonstrate our dedication to environmental responsibility,” the statement reads.

Rearick said the ethylene oxide emissions only come from a portion of the facility, which occupies about 6,000 square feet of the 175,000-square-foot distribution facility. The portion of the facility that uses ethylene oxide has been in operation since 2019, Rearick said, while the larger distribution facility by American Contract Systems has been in operation since 2014. ACS is a subtenant of the owner of the building, The Buncher Company.

Shown is the exterior of a Jackson Township American Contract Systems facility, a portion of which has been cited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as releasing potentially carcinogenic chemicals. Julia Maruca/Butler Eagle
Informational webinar

A U.S. EPA virtual presentation held Aug. 10 gave residents in communities with identified risks — including Zelienople — the chance to ask questions and hear directly from EPA officials on the dangers of ethylene oxide.

“Ethylene oxide can cause health risks, and it is also an important chemical to ensure the safety of a wide variety of medical devices that are used by doctors, hospitals and dentists,” said Janet McCabe, deputy administrator of the EPA, during the webinar.

The chemical is used in commercial sterilizer facilities, of which there are approximately 100 nationwide, McCabe explained. It is typically colorless, odorless and flammable. Some of these facilities release ethylene oxide into the air at a level that is concerning to the EPA.

McCabe established that the risk levels near a number of facilities is “too high,” and that the EPA is “taking the issue seriously.”

According to the EPA’s website, the American Contract Systems facility has approximately 15 employees. The facility manufactures surgical and medical equipment and provides sterilization services. Ethylene oxide is injected into sealed packages to sterilize equipment. American Contract System estimates that it uses about 80 pounds of ethylene oxide per month.

Madeline Beal, EPA senior risk communication adviser, said that children, along with workers in facilities that use ethylene oxide, are more at risk for exposure.

“Many facilities are already taking action to reduce this pollution, and many others are planning to do more to reduce it,” Beal said. “While we are concerned about risk in these communities, EtO is not a chemical that last for a long time in the environment. This means that reducing the amount of EtO that comes out of a facility will reduce risk almost right away.”

Shown is the exterior of a Jackson Township American Contract Systems facility, a portion of which has been cited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as releasing potentially carcinogenic chemicals. Julia Maruca/Butler Eagle
What comes next

The EPA is working with the state of Pennsylvania to reevaluate emissions at American Contract Systems. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is also working with American Contract Systems Inc. to install controls. Later this year, EPA plans to propose strengthening current regulations for ethylene oxide commercial sterilizers.

“The Agency is reviewing controls on regulated equipment and processes that emit EtO to determine whether additional air pollution controls are needed,” the statement reads. “This review includes examining new developments in practices, processes and control technologies, considering cost and feasibility, as well as addressing any previously unregulated emission points.”

The agency also plans to hold a meeting for the Jackson Township community specifically sometime in October or November and will alert community members once it is scheduled. A sign-up form is available on the EPA’s website.