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Metro East Environmentalists Call For Illinois Lawmakers To Ban Burning Toxic Class Of Chemicals

Members of Join Hands ESL hold kites with messages supporting a ban on PFAS incineration in front of industrial complexes in Sauget on April 22. A bill in the Illinois House would ban the burning of the toxic class of chemicals.
Eric Schmid
St. Louis Public Radio
Members of Join Hands ESL hold kites with messages supporting a ban on PFAS incineration in front of industrial complexes in Sauget on April 22. A bill in the Illinois House would ban the burning of the toxic class of chemicals.

Environmental groups and local residents in the Metro East want state lawmakers to pass legislation that would ban the incineration of a toxic class of chemicals known as PFAS.

The bill by Rep. LaToya Greenwood, D-East St. Louis, which advanced on Wednesday, would prohibit disposing of any PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) through burning, mirroring a law in New York.

PFAS refers broadly to thousands of synthetic chemicals found in common household products like nonstick cookware, clothing and stain repellent for carpet. It’s also one of the main components of many firefighting foams stored at municipal and military installations.

It has been linked to groundwater contamination, and exposure can cause cancer and other serious health ailments.

Members of the United Congregations of Metro East, a faith-based environmental group, gathered near some of the many industrial complexes in Sauget to voice their support for the bill on Thursday, which was Earth Day.

“This one step will be the beginning of us not having to breathe dirty air anymore,” said Marie Franklin, a lifelong resident of adjacent East St. Louis. “Burn that stuff next door to your momma, not mine.”

A statewide ban on PFAS incineration would have implications in the Metro East because Veolia Environmental Services’ incinerator in Sauget is one of the sites the Defense Department authorized to dispose of the substance.

A spokesperson for the company said it doesn’t have contracts with the Defense Department or other customers to dispose of PFAS at the Sauget facility and that it won’t voluntarily take material that contains PFAS.

Environmentalists and local residents see the legislation in Illinois as an additional safeguard for communities in and around East St. Louis.

“We need to ban the incineration of [PFAS] and invest our money into disposing of it safely,” said United Congregations President Cheryl Sommer. “Incineration is not the solution.”

She explained the country has an abundance of PFAS in need of disposal.

“Private companies have stockpiles of PFAS, and they know it’s a liability,” Sommer said. “They can’t just keep it around. It has to go.”

She said companies may see incineration as the quickest way to dispose of the substance.

But that option isn’t well tested, said one of the demonstrators, Sarem Hailemariem, who graduated from Washington University with a degree in biochemistry in 2019.

“What does burning do, what type of byproducts does it leave behind and what are the public health threats of the burned product?” she said. “It’s one of the strongest chemical bonds that we know of. It is essentially indestructible.”

With so much unknown, Hailemariem said PFAS shouldn’t be burned, especially near populated areas.

Franklin notes prohibiting PFAS incineration would be positive for her community, but she added that many industries still emit other pollutants.

“This is just the beginning of things that need to change in order to correct some of the harms that companies have done to Black and brown communities,” she said.

Sommer expects Greenwood’s bill will soon be law in Illinois, especially after it unanimously cleared a House committee.

“We don’t expect any resistance because legislators of both parties see this as a common sense issue,” she said.

Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East area in Illinois for St. Louis Public Radio. He joins the news team as its first Report for America corps member and is tasked with expanding KWMU's coverage east from the Mississippi. Before joining St. Louis Public Radio, Eric held competitive internships at Fox News Channel, NPR-affiliate WSHU Public Radio and AccuWeather. As a news fellow at WSHU's Long Island Bureau, he covered governments and environmental issues as well as other general assignments. Eric grew up in Northern Colorado but attended Stony Brook University, in New York where he earned his degree in journalism in 2018. He is an expert skier, avid reader and lifelong musician-he plays saxophone and clarinet.