It Could Soon Be Illegal For Sauget Company To Burn Group Of Chemicals Linked To Cancer
Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
It could soon be illegal for Illinois companies to incinerate a class of potentially cancer-causing substances known as “forever chemicals” because they accumulate in the body and environment without breaking down.
A bill to ban burning the chemicals — known as PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances — passed the General Assembly over the Memorial Day weekend. It was awaiting Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature as of Tuesday and would go into immediate effect.
Southwestern Illinoisans who live with poor air quality have raised concerns for years that an incinerator in Sauget operated by hazardous waste disposal company Veolia could burn PFAS, which is found in common household items and in firefighting foam used by the Air Force to extinguish aviation fuel fires.
While researchers are still studying the health impacts of burning PFAS, the chemicals are linked to higher cholesterol levels, cancer, pregnancy complications, low birth weights and immune disorders, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Veolia is on a U.S. Department of Defense list of companies authorized to burn PFAS, but has not done so, said company spokeswoman Carrie Griffiths.
“Even though PFAS remains unregulated, Veolia North America has made the voluntary decision not to accept material identified as containing PFAS at our incinerator in Sauget until further research and guidance from U.S. EPA is available,” Griffiths said in an email.
The Illinois bill (HB 3190) would make it illegal to burn regardless.
State. Sen. Chris Belt, D-Swansea, chief sponsor of the bill, said PFAS exposure puts metro-east communities “at immediate risk.”
“PFAS exposure may cause a number of harmful — and even fatal — health problems,” Belt said in an emailed statement. “Until we know for sure the effects these chemicals can have on our community, it’s critical that we move to protect vulnerable neighborhoods from potential dangers.”
Should it be signed into law, the legislation is a victory, said Cheryl Sommer, board chairman of United Congregations of Metro-East, a metro-east faith-based environmental group.
While the bill would ban burning PFAS, state health officials are also concerned about the chemicals’ presence in water.
The Illinois EPA began testing drinking water statewide in September for PFAS levels. The agency expects to complete the review of all of Illinois’ nearly 1,800 community water supplies by the fall. The study followed revelations about PFAS contamination in wells near Scott Air Force Base because of runoff from firefighting activity.
U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth have since advocated for regulations and research into PFAS’ potential threat to drinking water.
Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul has also called on closer monitoring of PFAS in drinking water. Raoul and 19 other attorneys general supported requiring public water system managers to regularly measure PFAS levels. There is no federal requirement for monitoring PFAS levels, according to Raoul’s office.
As of early June, the Illinois EPA has collected samples from more than 1,000 water supplies. The state environmental protection agency maintains an online map with sample results.
Kelsey Landis is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.