Fighting for Clean Air on Both Sides of the Mississippi River

Joshua Valeri

By Joshua Valeri

On July 24th, 2021, residents from both sides of the Mississippi
River gathered at the McKinley Bridge Roadside Park to demand
political action on issues of regional air quality. After listening to a
series of speakers denounce corporate and political crimes against
the environment, attendees marched across McKinley Bridge in a
symbolic unification of Missouri and Illinois’ fight for clean air.
Among the organizations represented at the rally were United
Congregations of Metro East (UCM) and Metropolitan Congregations
United (MCU)—two interfaith community organizations representing
Illinois and Missouri, respectively. Both organizations have recently
taken action to address toxic emissions in their communities, as
Kentaro Kumanomido of UCM, and Sister Dolores Sanchez of MCU,
explained in an episode of MCU’s podcast, “This is What Democracy
Looks Like”.

East of the Mississippi River, UCM has been working on a statewide
ban of the incineration of Per and Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
PFAS are chemicals sometimes referred to as “Forever Chemicals”
which are known to spread through the air over large distances and
cause serious health problems when burned. According to
Kumanomido, the Veolia incinerator in Sauget, Illinois is “one of only
12 toxic waste incinerators in the whole country—so they’re not only
burning municipal waste, they’re burning PFAS that get sent to them
by corporations throughout the country and even internationally.”

Kumanomido noted that UCM was eventually successful in helping
pass legislation banning this practice in Illinois. Unfortunately, he
added, UCM “received notice that [Governor Pritzker] is being
lobbied by a toxic waste incinerator in northern Illinois to have a veto
amendment that would allow for PFAS to be disposed of through
‘thermal oxidation’—essentially the same thing as incineration.” UCM
viewed the recent Air Quality Rally as an opportunity to bring
attention to this issue, among several others.

West of the Mississippi River, MCU has been working with
Washington University in St. Louis to place air quality monitors
throughout St. Louis, where there were previously only 3 functioning
monitors. According to Sister Dolores Sanchez, these monitors will
“help us identify what particles are in the air” and even “get a sense
of where those particulates are coming from.” Christina Lee, a
Wash U student working on this project, emphasizes that it aims to
“integrate the communities into the data-gathering process, so they
are directly armed with the knowledge of what’s in their air and what
that can mean for their health.”

This work is especially important in light of the disproportionate
incidence of asthma in majority-Black neighborhoods, just one of the
many environmental racial inequalities in St. Louis. To better
understand these health disparities and their connections to air
polluters, both MCU and UCM advocate increasing air quality
monitoring in their communities.

The Air Quality Rally was a unique opportunity for Illinois and
Missouri residents to voice support for such solutions together,
literally bridging the divide between the two states. Air pollution, like
most pollution, is not confined by state borders, so our communities
need a unified regional effort to stop the polluters. MCE lifts up and
supports our environmental stewards and partners and we hope you
will as well!

For more information visit www.moenvironment.org