For South Memphis residents, the August announcement that Sterilization Services of Tennessee will relocate from the almost all-Black neighborhood where it’s operated for nearly 40 years was a relief.
Residents eagerly await the day that SST will no longer emit ethylene oxide, a hazardous, colorless, odorless gas that has a cancer-causing risk 60 times higher than previously believed. But they remain disheartened by the lack of transparency and information that has left the community ill-equipped to fight against what they see as a public health emergency.
Because families such as Vera Holmes’ are sick. Holmes has had two tumors removed. Her mother has had cancer, as have two of Holmes’ brothers, three aunts and mother-in-law. They all spent most of their lives in Mallory Heights, a neighborhood in the shadow of SST.
Holmes, president of the Mallory Heights Community Development Corporation, says transparency needs to happen at all levels of city and county leadership.
“A whole team of people needs to be engaged,” she said. “[SST is] still here, and people are still sick, so the work has just really begun.”
The company told elected leaders it will close its South Memphis facility and relocate in the spring, but environmental advocates have not received any updates on the next steps. It’s reflective of a year of lackluster response from government agencies since October 2022, when the Environmental Protection Agency held a meeting that warned of EtO exposure. That’s why community organizers like Memphis Community Against Pollution got involved.
“Of course, we feel encouraged that Sterilization Services of Tennessee is going to leave our community and (that) the slow lynching of the people of Southwest Memphis is coming to an end,” said Keshaun Pearson, MCAP president. “The other thing is that we can’t be placated with plans, right? Until that actually materializes, pollution is still going to be suffocating this area.”
EtO and toxic uncertainty
EtO has a long history of being shrouded in toxic uncertainty.
In 1994, the EPA listed the chemical as a hazardous air pollutant. In 2016, the EPA released a report with conclusive evidence that EtO is carcinogenic to humans, but a senior-level former President Donald Trump appointee in the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation blocked the report’s public release.
It wasn’t until 2022 that the EPA began alerting communities such as South Memphis of cancer risks associated with EtO. In the October meeting last year, EPA representatives told residents that constant exposure to SST’s level of EtO emissions over a long period is associated with an increased risk of developing cancers such as leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and stomach and breast cancers.
“Even in a low dose, that can be enough in some people to trigger cancer,” said Susan Buchanan, an occupational environmental medicine physician who is studying EtO exposure in residents near EtO-emitting plants.
“This chemical is so carcinogenic that even with mitigation measures that they can put on the stacks, if there is leakage from these buildings, just from the doors opening, it causes risks for the communities. My bottom line with ethylene oxide is these facilities shouldn’t be near where people live,” she said.
SST in the neighborhood
Gerald Ford was president when SST began operating on Florida Street, northwest of the Interstate 55-Highway 61 interchange, in 1976.
When it comes to cancer potential, SST is among the riskiest EtO-emitting facilities in the country because of the concentration of the chemical that’s been emitted over decades in a densely populated area. In 1988, SST emitted 178,400 pounds of EtO.
That’s a devastating amount of carcinogenic emissions, according to attorney Nevin Wisnoski. In August Wisnoski helped to file a lawsuit on behalf of seven South Memphis residents exposed to EtO, accusing SST of gross negligence. “Due to exposure to the poisoned air, the named Plaintiffs have suffered severe injuries, including miscarriage(s), birth defect(s), brain cancer, blood cancer, stomach cancer, lymphoma, leukemia, and breast cancer – and one has died as a result,” the lawsuit said. All of the plaintiffs lived within four miles of the facility.
Because EtO modifies DNA, it hits children the hardest, Wisnoski said. “There’s been a dark cloud, in a sense, for a long time in the community. I think the long and the short of it is just how impactful this was for people born between 1979 and 1991.”
The area around SST is a dense residential area with schools and churches. In a mile radius around SST, 97% of residents are Black, and nearly 60% of households earn less than $25,000 a year. The location of SST and its effects on human health is reflective of a repeating pattern of environmental racism across the nation, Wisnoski said.
It’s no surprise, he said, “that where these facilities tend to be is where the community surrounding it is, for various reasons, least capable of ridding themselves of that problem.”
Asking for transparency
The neighborhood around SST, which is also home to a Valero oil refinery, would be even more vulnerable if not for community organizers calling attention to once-neglected environmental justice issues.
For months, organizers have pushed the Shelby County Health Department, which has local responsibility for air quality, for action that rises to the pace and scale of what they call a public health crisis.
In February, MCAP organizers and their attorneys asked SCHD to issue an emergency air pollution order against SST under the Memphis Air Pollution Code. They cite section nine of that code, which says the health officer can use emergency power when an air contaminant source is causing imminent danger to human health. With this power, the officer makes orders to reduce or stop the emissions within days. Any new EPA emissions standards would take two years to enact.
But the health department declined to do so.
All the while, Holmes and others have fruitlessly searched for data that would quantify the risk. They’ve run into roadblock after roadblock – missing data on EPA’s websites, too few details from SCHD, and failed attempts to have hearings and discussions with local leaders.
“We need to have transparency on really what is happening and how bad it is so we can fix it,” she said.
On EPA databases, SST reports for its emissions are not available for 18 years — from 2002 through 2020. In 2021, the SCHD discovered that SST had failed to submit quarterly reports, which are used to inform the EPA and its databases. Additionally, that year, the department found SST was 406 days late in renewing its operating permit. SST paid $9,857 in penalties and fines.
In 2021, when data was available, SST reported 1,490 pounds of EtO emissions. That’s well within the federal and state emission limits, but it can still cause an elevated cancer risk, according to the EPA.
The company kept the complete records of emissions at the facility, according to a department spokesperson. SCHD did not disclose how long SST failed to submit these reports or what the reports showed.
Even as MCAP and its attorneys were in meetings about SST, the community was never told that the company was relocating.
In late August, the Memphis and Shelby County Air Pollution Control Board, made up of appointees from Mayors Jim Strickland and Lee Harris, discussed the issue with MCAP’s attorneys from the Southern Environmental Law Center. No one spoke about SST’s closure during the meeting, and it is unclear whether the board knew about its plans to relocate.
However, the company’s attorneys sent a letter to Strickland along with a string of other people in the email in July, and Harris was made aware of it during that time, according to their office spokespeople. Congressman Steve Cohen also received the letter. The representative has attended public meetings with MCAP, calling the response from SCHD and SST “unacceptable.”
So it was frustrating when Pearson and MCAP Communications Director Yolonda Spinks learned that was information they could have had during the board meeting.
Spinks only found out about it during a call with FOX13 reporter Cierra Jordan, who asked Cohen for an update on SST during an unrelated press conference over Labor Day weekend. He told Jordan that the facility faced issues with their property manager, and Jordan reported that the company may relocate to Hickory Hill or Mississippi.
The company’s letter did not specify these locations, if the site would need remediation or how many jobs could be impacted. SST and government agencies did not independently confirm this information with MLK50: Justice Through Journalism despite repeated requests for comment.
Spinks had to callCohen’s office to verify the news herself and inform her organization and community. It came as a shock to both her and Pearson, who have been relentlessly working toward a solution that would lower emissions from the facility.
“Had we had that information beforehand, we could have really done things differently and invested our resources differently,” said Pearson.
SST has still not communicated its plans with South Memphis, according to MCAP, and if the company has shared that information with city and county leaders, they have not been made aware of it.
Trying community science
The gap in data highlights the need for community air monitors, organizers say.
Right now, South Memphis residents don’t have the technology to capture accurate data on EtO emissions. One small, low-cost tool is fence-line monitoring, which can measure chemicals like EtO that don’t come from smokestacks.
Further, there are not any government-sanctioned air monitors in the area. Twenty-seven monitors measure air quality and pollution across five sites with locations in Shelby Farms and Uptown.
It’s another issue that has local and federal agencies pointing fingers at each other.
When the EPA held a public meeting this June about EtO, SCHD Director and Health Officer Michelle Taylor conceded that her department had learned that night that it didn’t need EPA permission to install additional air monitors. She promised to fight for funding that would get South Memphis air monitors, but that process is just beginning.
In the meantime, MCAP wrote its own grant proposal under President Joe Biden’s Justice40 initiative. It successfully received funding for its own air monitoring project. It will provide the air quality metrics community members need to protect their health. That is also just getting started.
Through a community-led air monitoring project, people would have the knowledge they need to make informed decisions, like when to seek medical help for air pollution exposure. This approach branches from the emerging community science movement, where people who are emotionally and financially invested in their community collect data that supports their needs.
As MLK50: Justice Through Journalism reported last year about the integrity of data collection, community science is a fundamental reimagining of collection that empowers residents to act quickly — something Holmes wants to see.
But all the while, Holmes feels that too much time has already been lost. She believes her community is being held back economically because of environmental injustice. And while SST prepares to pack up and leave, her community is still there with a polluted legacy that has disrupted their lives.
“So much damage has already been done,” Holmes said. “We got to continue to hold everyone accountable until we can get the results that we need.”
Ashli Blow is a freelance writer who covers environmental science and policy. Her stories range from the lives of people in urban watersheds to those who roam the wilderness. She was raised in Memphis and produced breaking news at WMC Action News 5. She has now been working in journalism and strategic communications for nearly 10 years. Ashli lives in Seattle and is a graduate student at the University of Washington, studying climate policy.
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