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Health, Science, Environment

Sen. Duckworth Wants EPA To Install Metal Emission Monitors At Sauget Incinerator

Veolia Environmental Services Trade Waste Incinerator in Saguet Illinois in 2018. Senator Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, wrote to the Environmental Protection Agency asking them to place new multi-metal emissions requirements on the Sauget incinerator.
File photo / Eli Chen
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St. Louis Public Radio
Veolia Environmental Services Trade Waste Incinerator in Saguet, Illinois, in 2018. U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, wrote to the Environmental Protection Agency asking it to place new multimetal emissions requirements on the incinerator.

Updated 11:40 a.m., Feb. 4 with comment from Veolia Environmental Services

SAUGET — U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth is calling on the new acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to install multimetal emissions monitoring at Veolia Environmental Services’ incinerator.

The Illinois Democrat made her request to Jane Nishida in a letter last week, after another government agency determined it could not conduct a health consultation in the communities that surround Veolia’s plant.

Duckworth writes she asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to conduct a consultation but the agency said it could not follow through because there isn’t recent air sampling data for metals collected in communities near the Veolia facility.

Without that data, the disease registry said it’s unable to determine how much metals people are inhaling or the associated health risks.

“This is deeply troubling. My constituents in Sauget deserve environmental justice,” Duckworth wrote. “ATSDR’s inability to conduct a meaningful public health evaluation is wrong.”

Duckworth’s specific request of EPA isn’t novel, said Ken Miller, an environmental scientist at the Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic at Washington University’s law school.

He explained it’s in line with the standards the agency put forth in its original renewal permit for the Sauget plant issued in the final days of the Obama presidency in 2017.

It required Veolia to monitor and report the total concentrations of arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, lead and mercury that it emits.

“That's the thing Senator Duckworth is now asking EPA to require them to put on,” Miller said.

Veolia officials signaled they’re open to monitoring metal emissions from hazardous waste incinerators.

“Once the EPA approves the use of continuous multi-metal emissions monitors and they are adopted into the regulations to monitor metals, we will support their use at all commercial hazardous waste incinerators in the United States,” the company said through a spokesperson.

EPA officials did not specifically say how they’ll address Duckworth’s letter.

It’s unclear how the EPA will respond to Duckworth’s request, especially since Veolia petitioned for the permit to be reviewed by the Environmental Appeals Board, he said.

Veolia and EPA later came to a settlement in 2018, which altered the permit to remove the requirement that Veolia monitor the metals it was emitting, something the company fought hard for, said Liz Hubertz, director of WashU’s interdisciplinary environmental clinic.

Hubertz said the EPA could reopen Veolia’s permit, which was officially issued in 2019, and add the monitoring requirements back in, but she added that isn’t likely to happen.

“If there hadn’t been the appeals, they might,” she said. “But I don’t think they’ll want to go back on something that has been fought to that level and appealed above them.”

Hubertz said it’s unlikely Veolia’s Clean Air Act operating permit will be changed until it’s up for renewal in 2024.

What can the EPA do?

The EPA could install ambient air monitors in the surrounding communities to collect some data on heavy metals concentrations in the air, Hubertz said.

“It wouldn’t be on Veolia’s smokestack, but it would monitor the air in the area,” she said. “They don’t need Veolia’s permission to do that.”

These kinds of monitors could provide some answers to questions of what’s in the air in Sauget and East St. Louis, communities closest to Veolia’s plant.

Maime Cosey, 80, lives in East St. Louis and has dealt with the various smells from the Sauget incinerator for nearly a decade. She said the plant isn’t burning materials as frequently since the pandemic gripped the region.

“It has gotten somewhat better, but the intensity of the odor is still the same,” Cosey said. “We stay indoors. We don’t go outside. And if we do, we hurry up and get in our car and get away.”

Cosey said she believes living near the incinerator has caused health problems for her three great-grandchildren, whom she cares for. Her great-grandson has developed asthma and her great-granddaughter has panic attacks when the plant burns material.

“That bothers me a lot that I can’t control that,” she said. “I think our government should take a hard look at what we’re doing to low-income families and people of color.”

Duckworth’s letter is encouraging to Cosey, but she said she wishes other officials would take steps to ensure environmental justice.

The Biden-Harris administration is taking steps to integrate environmental justice into the way it makes decisions across many agencies, an EPA spokesperson said.

Miller said at the very least, there should be some kind of air monitoring happening at or around the Veolia plant.

“Whether it’s direct monitoring of their emissions, or monitoring of ambient air in the community,” Miller said. “Just to give the residents who live nearby some peace of mind because that’s all they’ve been asking for years now.”

Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid

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