McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Environmentalists and residents of the South Texas border city of Laredo are expected to testify in large numbers Tuesday night during a public hearing being held by a state agency that is considering whether to allow a company to continue operations that are directly linked to cancer-causing air emissions.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is holding an open hearing at 6:30 p.m. on CDT Tuesday at Texas A&M International University in Laredo. The public is invited to comment on a request by Missouri-based Midwest Sterilization Corporation for an air permit renewal license by the state agency.
A study by the Environmental Protection Agency in July 2022 directly linked high levels of the cancer-causing gas ethylene oxide with Midwest Sterilization’s operations at the facility in northwest Laredo, which is near several schools. The facility sterilizes medical equipment but in the process, the noxious gas is emitted. “The risk assessment identified elevated cancer risk in the Laredo community,” the EPA report found.
Tricia Cortez, executive director of the nonprofit Rio Grande International Study Center, encourages residents and border citizens to testify.
“Tonight’s very important. It’s the first time they’re going to have to answer questions to the public about these air emissions and their air permit renewal applications,” Cortez told Border Report on Tuesday. “This is our moment.”
The air permit is renewed every 10 years and Cortez says it’s crucial for anyone concerned to speak out now.
“We need the TCEQ to step up their game and not be in sort of this protective position of this industry and this company. And we need them to exercise their full authority and full power to better protect Laredo from these cancer-causing emissions and the level of cancer risk that this one company has created for our entire city. It’s unacceptable, and we need the TCEQ to do way more than they previously had,” said Cortez who is part of the Clean Air Laredo Coalition.
A ruling by the TCEQ isn’t expected for several months.
However, the EPA by the spring is expected to finalize new regulations that are expected to greatly reduce the amount of ethylene oxide, or EtO, at commercial sterilizer plants in Laredo, and nationwide.
In May, the EPA air permits manager sent TCEQ officials a letter “to express concerns” about the permitting application submitted in February by Midwest Sterilization, and to open the process up to the public for comment.
The “EPA recommends that enhanced public outreach be expanded for this renewal action due to historical community concerns about Midwest’s ethylene oxide emissions,” according to the EPA letter.
The EPA cited that over 48,000 people live within 5 kilometers of the Midwest Sterilization facility; 12% are limited English-speaking and 33% are low-income.
Cortez says the low-income border community has not been well safeguarded by the state since Midwest Sterilization opened its plant in 2005.
“I think they, as do many others, take advantage of the border, and think that we’re not going to say anything, or that anything goes here. But that’s not the case. And they are realizing that especially about this community of Laredo,” Cortez said.
The Clean Air Laredo Coalition earlier this month held a neighborhood meeting to rally citizens to participate in this public commenting process.
The EPA ranked the Laredo facility among the top 23 high-risk sterilization facilities in the nation due to the emission of EtO.
“It’s outrageous that this company has been able to get away with this for so long,” said parent Brandon Mathewson, who lives in La Bota Ranch, a highly impacted Laredo neighborhood.
“We need TCEQ to know that just because we live on the border doesn’t mean that companies like Midwest can come into our neighborhoods and take advantage of us. They’re making enormous profits while poisoning us by emitting thousands of pounds of this dangerous chemical into our air,” said Laredo artist and educator Celina Vallarta.
Tuesday’s hearing will have an informal discussion period where Midwest Sterilization and TCEQ will answer public questions, but is not part of the official record. Then there will be a formal comment period on the permit renewal application, which will be part of the official record.
Comments can also be sent electronically before the hearing to the TCEQ website (must enter Permit Number 55557).
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at SSanchez@BorderReport.com.