News | August 30, 2023

Less ethylene oxide is a win for South Memphians

Memphians like Yolanda Spinks (center) stepped up to spread the word about how Sterilization Services of Tennessee has released ethylene oxide from its South Memphis facility since the 1970s. Because of the plant’s location near homes, schools, and churches, EPA identified the Sterilization Services of Tennessee as one of 23 commercial sterilizer sites that carry “elevated” cancer risks for nearby residents. (@Steve Jones) MCAP’s Keshaun Pearson and Yolanda Spinks were in attendance plus SELC lawyers Amanda Garcia, Trey Bussey and Sami Harrell along with several south Memphis community members who had hoped to speak.

In a major victory for Memphians, Sterilization Services of Tennessee announced it will be closing its South Memphis facility, which has been releasing toxic, cancer-causing pollution for more than four decades.  

Sterilization Services of Tennessee has been pumping ethylene oxide into the air since the 1970s. Ethylene oxide, also known as EtO, is a colorless and odorless gas that causes increased risks for cancers, including lymphoma, leukemia, and breast cancer. The Environmental Protection Agency has found that EtO is 60 times more toxic than previously understood. Last year, the agency listed SST’s South Memphis plant, which is surrounded by homes, churches, and daycare centers, as one of 23 facilities that carry “elevated” cancer risks for nearby residents. 

Families living near the Sterilization Services of Tennessee plant have been exposed to toxic ethylene oxide pollution for far too long, and we are pleased that they may soon be able to breathe easier.

Amanda Garcia, Senior Attorney

In a letter to U.S. Representative Steve Cohen, attorneys for Sterilization Services of Tennessee said the company plans to close its South Memphis facility by April of next year. “Sterilization Services of Tennessee will no longer be operating a sterilization plant in Memphis, Tennessee as of April 30, 2024,” the letter reads.  

“Families living near the Sterilization Services of Tennessee plant have been exposed to toxic ethylene oxide pollution for far too long, and we are pleased that they may soon be able to breathe easier,” SELC Senior Attorney Amanda Garcia said. 

‘People power works’

MCAP’s Keshaun Pearson (center) and Yolanda Spinks (right) attend a recent ethylene oxide public meeting with SELC Senior Attorney Amanda Garcia (left). (@Steve Jones)

The closure comes after months of advocacy from community members and local organizations, like Memphis Community Against Pollution and the Mallory Heights Community Development Corporation, who have pushed for the Sterilization Services of Tennessee facility to either reduce the amount of ethylene oxide it releases or move out of the neighborhood. 

“This long-overdue closure is the result of ‘People Power.’ When we band together, speak truth to power, and fight back against industrial polluters in our communities, justice is realized,” KeShaun Pearson, President of Memphis Community Against Pollution said. “People power works!” 

Over the last year, MCAP held rallies, hosted community meetings, and reached out to local leaders about the continuous ethylene oxide pollution in South Memphis. The continuous advocacy efforts pushed the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission to both pass resolutions urging Sterilization Services of Tennessee to reduce its ethylene oxide emissions.  

When we band together, speak truth to power, and fight back against industrial polluters in our communities, justice is realized.

Keshaun Pearson, MCAP

In February, the Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of Memphis Community Against Pollution, requested that the Shelby County Health Department use its emergency powers to address Sterilization Services of Tennessee’s ethylene oxide pollution. When the Health Department refused, MCAP and SELC appealed that decision. That appeal remains pending. 

Pollution problems persist

While news of the closure comes as a relief to communities near the plant, air pollution risks continue to pose a threat in South Memphis. Residents may have already developed cancer from exposure to ethylene oxide or they may become ill in the future. Additionally, SST plans to continue to operate – and release toxic ethylene oxide – until April 2024.  

Gray and white clouds billow from a smokestack at an industrial facility.
The nearby Valero facility in South Memphis. (Staff photo)

“Eight months is a long time, and neighborhoods in South Memphis shouldn’t be forced to continue to live with cancer-causing pollution. We urge local leaders to better protect communities near the Sterilization Services of Tennessee plant until its long-overdue closure,” Pearson said.  

“There is an air pollution emergency right now in South Memphis, and Sterilization Services of Tennessee should close and relocate as quickly as they can,” Garcia said.  

In addition, South Memphis, which is made up of predominantly Black neighborhoods, continues to be overburdened with industrial facilities that impact air quality and threaten the health of nearby communities. SELC and MCAP will continue to push local leaders and industry to better protect Memphians from dangerous air pollution – no matter the source.  

Learn more about how ethylene oxide pollution has impacted Memphis.