CDC To Review Air Pollution Near East St. Louis, Duckworth Says

Illinois senator asked for assessment of toxic releases from Veolia plant, a site profiled in a recent BGA story about President Trump’s diminished EPA.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) speaks during a weekly news conference on Capitol Hill in 2018. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

Federal health officials are reviewing whether toxic emissions from a Downstate hazardous waste incinerator pose health risks to surrounding residents, according to an official at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The assessment comes amid a more than decade-long battle between the owner of the Veolia North America plant in Sauget, Ill., just outside of St. Louis, and environmental groups representing nearby residents seeking increased monitoring of airborne metals from the incinerator’s three smoke stacks.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois requested the probe and, in a response on Nov. 14, the director of the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said his team will review available information “to determine whether the data are sufficient for ATSDR to provide the community with a meaningful evaluation of public health impacts resulting from exposure.”

“We will send you a second letter indicating whether an assessment of the public health risks posed by the Veolia North America-Trade Waste Incinerator Facility is feasible or if we may be making recommendations to collect additional data,” Director Patrick Breysse wrote in the response to Duckworth.

On Nov. 15, the Better Government Association featured the Sauget controversy in an investigation into the effects of cutbacks at the Environmental Protection Agency under President Donald Trump.

“I’m excited. Maybe we will move this along because lives are at stake,” said Mamie Cosey, a 78-year-old great-grandmother who lives near the incinerator and was highlighted in the BGA story. “I told my story for my great-grandchildren and the other children in our community.”

Residents “deserve a full investigation into the potential health concerns stemming from the weakening of pollution controls at a local waste facility and I’m encouraged by the announcement of a federal review of this very serious problem,” Duckworth said in Nov. 20 statement announcing the CDC decision. “I’ll continue working to get to the bottom of it.”

Contacted Wednesday, a Veolia spokeswoman said the company welcomes the scrutiny.

Community and environmental organizations have been asking for stricter monitoring of the toxic releases at the plant for more than a decade. In the final days of Barack Obama’s presidency, his EPA approved tougher rules to track the air pollution from the Veolia plant, but that decision was reversed earlier this year by Trump’s EPA. 

The ATSDR director told Duckworth in the letter that his agency will work closely with the EPA and Illinois public health and environmental agencies to gather available data and conduct monitoring assessments to make its initial determination about whether the emissions of mercury, lead, arsenic and other metals pose a danger to residents of Sauget and the surrounding neighborhoods, including East St. Louis.

Duckworth first requested the investigation in an Oct. 18 letter to Breysse.

“EPA recently revised the permit to free Veolia from monitoring all metal emissions except for mercury,” Duckworth wrote. “Community leaders, residents and I are deeply concerned that this dramatic weakening in pollution controls puts public health at risk.”

One environmental lawyer who has fought for stiffer monitoring at the plant said she is happy for the CDC intervention. 

“It’s good that someone is investigating to see what they have been exposed to,” said Elizabeth Hubertz, of the environmental law clinic at Washington University in St. Louis.

The BGA investigation highlighted the Veolia incinerator as an example of regulatory rollbacks by Trump’s EPA. The BGA found the agency’s Chicago office, which oversees six Midwest states, has been hit hard. Inspections performed by the Chicago office of EPA under Trump plunged 60%, compared with a 30% decline throughout the rest of the country. 

There are roughly 150 fewer scientists, technicians and support staff in the Chicago office since Trump became president, according to EPA documents provided by employee union officials. In several important environmental cases, employees documented their objections to superiors overruling their scientific and technical expertise in favor of polluters.