Mamie Cosey wants her great-grandchildren to play and exercise outside, but some days she can’t let them, she said, because the air isn’t safe to breathe.
Cosey, 79, lives in East St. Louis, near the Veolia Environmental Services incinerator in Sauget. She explained on some days the stench from the plant is overwhelming.
“It’s various odors depending on what they’re cooking,” Cosey said. “Sometimes it’s rotten sewage. Sometimes it’s like chemical smells. It’s out of control.”
She’s lived near the plant for nearly a decade, and the acrid smells are nothing new. But environmental activists in the Metro East are concerned the incinerator could start burning something new: PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) firefighting foam.
The Veolia incinerator is listed as one of eight sites authorized by the Department of Defense to dispose of the substance, according to a lawsuit filed in February. The United Congregations of Metro East, the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations are suing the Department of Defense to block the disposal pending an environmental review.
So far, the incinerator in Sauget hasn’t burned any PFAS firefighting foam from the Defense Department, said Cheryl Sommer, president of the United Congregations of Metro East. She said her organization received records in the spring showing the Sauget plant had not received any foam.
A spokesperson for Veolia Environmental Services said the plant does not have contracts with the Defense Department or other customers to dispose of PFAS at the Sauget facility.
Environmentalists are concerned
Sommer said the facility’s authorization to dispose of the foam means the plant could receive the substance in the future, either from the Department of Defense or another source.
“Municipalities have it. State fire departments have it,” Sommer said. “It’s everywhere.”
The Defense Department accounts for three-quarters of the PFAS firefighting foam used while municipal airports, refineries and other industrial facilities account for most of the rest, the plaintiffs allege in their federal complaint.
Environmental activists are particularly concerned about the effects of incinerating PFAS firefighting foam because the substance is difficult to break down.
PFAS are a set of thousands of synthetic chemicals that are found in common household products like nonstick cookware, clothing and stain repellent for carpet. Most Americans have some levels of PFAS in their bodies because the so-called “forever chemicals” do not break down naturally and can accumulate over time.
“The same properties that have made PFAS a widely used fire suppressant also make them difficult and dangerous to incinerate,” the plaintiffs write. “Uncombusted PFAS are emitted into the air along with other hazardous chemicals, contaminating the communities surrounding the incinerators.”
This happened at a hazardous waste incinerator in Cohoes, New York, one of the other facilities authorized to burn the foam, Sommer said.
“Activists out there did a study of the soil in the vicinity of the Cohoes plant, and it demonstrated that it was un-adequately incinerating the PFAS,” she said. “The soil was laced with it.”
Serious health risks
PFAS exposure can lead to kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, liver damage, suppressed immune systems, fertility issues in women and other serious health ailments, according to the federal lawsuit.
The suit alleges the Defense Department knew byproducts from burning PFAS present serious health risks to people in surrounding communities, including severe respiratory damage and skin burns. The plaintiffs add that some of the byproducts are the same chemicals found in rodent poison or chemical warfare agents.
“It’s our health that’s at stake here,” Sommer said. “We’re talking about seriously toxic stuff.”
Last November, the CDC launched an investigation into whether the Veolia plant is emitting heavy metals into the air. The investigation is still ongoing, according to the office of Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois.
“The people of Sauget deserve answers about the potential health concerns stemming from the weakening of pollution controls at the Veolia Waste Incineration facility,” the senator said in a written statement. “I know how important it is that every American be able to breathe safe and clean air, regardless of where they live.”
Cosey said she sees the effects of what the plant burns regularly.
“Some mornings you wake up and the grass is not green,” she said. “The grass is brown. How that happens only God knows.”
The pollution has made it impossible for Cosey to keep flowers or garden with her great-grandson, she said.
“He wanted to plant a garden, and I helped him. You couldn’t tell what I planted. It was not edible,” she said. “He was disgusted and has not planted a garden since.”
The possibility of new toxic substances coming from the incinerator leaves Cosey confused and upset. She said the majority of people in her community are low-income or people of color.
“I don’t know why there isn’t a lot of outcry in this community about the plant,” she said. “You’re cheating my kids of a normal life that they should have.”
Cosey said she is particularly concerned with how the consistent exposure to whatever Veolia burns will affect her great-grandchildren’s health later in life. She added she does not understand why she and other members of her community need to be the ones to prove to the EPA if something is toxic.
A spokesperson for the EPA said PFAS is not listed as a hazardous waste or hazardous air pollutant under federal law, but the agency is evaluating if the firefighting foam can be safely incinerated. The EPA will release new guidance on PFAS disposal before the end of the year.
“They should be the one to prove that these things are not harmful,” Cosey said.
Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.
Reprinted with permission of St. Louis Public Radio