A private company is suing my county to raise my property taxes!?!

Our house is located near Sterigenics, a medical sterilization company that emits a cancerous chemical called ethylene oxide (EO) into the air.  According to the EPA, if there are 0.0002 micrograms of EO per cubic meter of air that you breathe then you have a 1-in-a-million risk of getting cancer from the exposure.  At one hundred times that concentration, or 0.02 micrograms of EO per cubic meter of air, the risk becomes 100-in-a-million, or 100 times greater.  Sterigenics self-reports that their emissions in Cobb County, GA, where I live, are 0.35 micrograms of EO per cubic meter of air.  While I don’t know the exact risk at this reported level of exposure, the trend from the EPA’s risks would suggest a 1,750-in-a-million risk of cancer.  

Learning that you live so close to a facility that emits such a cancerous and deadly chemical into the air is a serious matter, and it is not unique to me or even Cobb County, GA.  Sterigenics has over 75 lawsuits from individuals who developed cancer because they lived or worked near their facility in Willowbrook, IL.  

Locally, Sterigenics faces lawsuits because it violated environmental regulations and polluted the air which caused Cobb County to devalue our home values for tax assessment purposes.  Cobb County took this measure because they believed our home values would be negatively affected by at least 10% due to our proximity to the still-operating Sterigenics facility.  You read that correctly — our local government did the right thing and proactively lowered our taxes because it was within their control and they believed it to be the best measure with the information they had.  

Here’s where it gets interesting.  Sterigenics recently filed suit against Cobb County because they allege that the lowering of our taxes will provide credence to pending or future lawsuits they might have against them by homeowners because of the decreased home values.  Yes, they are suing to get our property taxes increased back to where they were.  Oddly enough, home prices in our neighborhood have been increasing as the market has this year.  While one year of market growth does not define the future, Sterigenics’s suit seems to be founded in the presumption that our home values will decline, which hasn’t happened.  

I’m an engineer, not a lawyer, but I’m an excellent Googler and I’ve learned enough to believe that there is no standing for Sterigenics’s suit per constitutional standards.  The short of it is that Sterigenics will probably have to argue that if Cobb County keeps our taxes the same then our home values will not drop in the open market and then they will not get sued by homeowners, but market home values are not defined by tax assessed value.  If you want more details on the technicality of it all, standing requires these three things: (1) injury in fact, (2) causation, and (2) redressability, and at least two of these are missing.   

  • Injury in fact – The lowering of property taxes does not produce any injury to Sterigenics. The injury they are claiming is the liability Sterigenics is facing, which is self-created. Sterigenics violated environmental standings so it is facing lawsuits over its actions. The property taxes being lowered was to help those who were hurt, not to injure Sterigenics.
  • Causation – On this matter, Sterigenics would have to be able to prove that a lowering of property taxes by Cobb County’s assessments will lead to lawsuits wherein they suffer an injury.  The lowering of our property tax assessment is the function of the local government looking to aid its citizens.  A suit brought by a current homeowner against Sterigenics about a drop in the value of their house in the market will be based on comparable sales and not by the tax assessment by Cobb County, meaning that their assessments for property taxes aren’t the causal factor at play and making Cobb County then not a suitable defendant in a case on the matter.  Also, there is little evidence to suggest that anyone is going to sue due to the lower property tax that was not already going to sue in the first place because of a possible drop in their home value in the open market. 

There are other problems with Sterigenics’s case, such as its lack of ripeness, meaning that they have raised a case that is heavily dependent on events that have not yet developed.  Basically, Sterigenics can be sued for two apparent reasons: 1) causing cancer and 2) property devaluations; while 1) may be ripe if people are getting cancer within the affected area, 2) simply hasn’t happened because home values are increasing currently.  

Constitutional requirements for a lawsuit aside, it is terrible enough that we’ve unknowingly been exposed to such a high level of a carcinogen in our air for years.  It was strange enough when Sterigenics then filed a restraining order against Cobb County.  Now it’s just down-right asinine of Sterigenics to try and raise a baseless suit against Cobb County to get our taxes raised when the government was throwing us a bone.  How much more harm can one small business in an industrial strip mall cause to a community and county? 

Further reading