GOP incumbent criticized over slow response to toxic emissions at plant in Chicago suburbs

Republican House member facing tough election battle with clean energy entrepreneur.

Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL)) CREDIT: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL)) CREDIT: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL), who represents a district in the Chicago suburbs, has paid little attention to environmental and climate issues since getting elected to Congress in 2006. Facing a tough reelection bid, though, Roskam has shifted course in 2018 — but only slightly.

Roskam is under attack from environmental groups and his Democratic opponent, Sean Casten, for his poor environmental record. In particular, they are inquiring why Roskam has not done more to protect people who live near a company in his congressional district that reportedly has been emitting cancer-causing chemicals.

A federal report released in August warned that exposure to ethylene oxide, a gas used by medical equipment sterilization company Sterigenics International Inc., is far more dangerous than previously thought. In one census tract near the plant in Willowbrook, Illinois, the government report estimated the risk of cancer is more than nine times the national average.

In December 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) changed its description of the gas ethylene oxide from “probably carcinogenic to humans” to “carcinogenic to humans.” The EPA also determined the cancer potency risk for adult-based inhalation of ethylene oxide was 30 times higher.


“There are a ton of people who are anxious about this” who live near the facility, Casten said Tuesday in an interview with ThinkProgress. After hearing about the study, people are questioning whether the history of cancer in their families is connected to the Sterigenics facility, he said.

“And the fact that between 2016 and today, the House Republicans voted to gut the Science Advisory Board at the EPA is not lost on those of us who think that facts and science matter and are worth defending,” Casten said.

In 2017, Roskam voted for the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act, which would prevent the EPA from excluding industry-scientists with financial conflicts, so long as their conflicts are publicly disclosed. The bill passed the House in March 2017, but did not get anywhere in the Senate.

Roskam is up against a strong campaign being waged by Casten, a clean energy entrepreneur who is focusing his campaign on the environment and clean energy. Casten and Roskam are statistically tied in recent polls.


Democrats see the November election as a rare opportunity to defeat an established congressman such as Roskam in part because he represents a district where presidential nominee Hillary Clinton prevailed over Donald Trump by a wide margin in 2016.

Roskam’s office had not responded to email request for comment from ThinkProgress at the time this article was published.

On Tuesday, Casten joined 314 Action, a organization created for scientists and technology experts running for office, and other candidates for a press conference at the Willowdale facility to shine light on the dangerous emissions from the facility.

“Peter Roskam’s silence over Sterigenics is astonishing” Casten said in a statement after the press conference. “I’m a scientist who believes in facts, and the facts show ethylene oxide — the toxin emitted from Sterigenics — is giving people cancer in the 6th Congressional District.”

“Instead of protecting the EPA,” he continued, “Roskam voted to gut the board that reviews the very reports that showed ethylene oxide increases the risk of cancer 30-fold.”

Roskam joined the House Climate Solutions Caucus in May, shortly after Casten won the Democratic primary for the 6th congressional district. Otherwise, Roskam’s record in Congress has been noticeably anti-environment.


During his 12 years representing Illinois’ 6th congressional district, Roskam has a lifetime environmental score of just 7 percent, according to the League of Conservation Voters. And in 2017, during President Donald Trump’s first year in office, Roskam’s environment voting record was a dismal 3 percent, according to the LCV.

“People in the 6th District are finally seeing Roskam for the wolf in sheep’s clothing he is,” Ted Bordelon, director of communications for 314 Action, told ThinkProgress.  “[Roskam] has voted time and time again to defund the EPA, take away healthcare from millions of Americans and vote with Trump’s agenda almost 95 percent of the time.”