Mamie Cosey and others living near downstate Sauget, a tiny, industrial town on the banks of the Mississippi River near East St. Louis, wondered for years what poisons they all could smell spewing from the three smokestacks of a waste-incinerator plant.
Two days before President Barack Obama left office, the federal Environmental Protection Agency ordered that the stacks be continuously monitored for arsenic, lead, mercury and other harmful metals that the 78-year-old Cosey blames for the health problems of her three great-grandchildren.
It was a victory environmental groups took more than a decade to secure.
But the French owner of the Veolia North America plant, which fought daily monitoring as too restrictive and unreliable, knew that Obama’s EPA wouldn’t have the last word. President Donald Trump’s EPA would.
Two months into the Trump presidency, the plant manager and the company’s lobbyist — a former Illinois congressman — traveled to Washington to meet with the new president’s embattled choice to head the agency, Scott Pruitt.
Days later, a company lawyer emailed federal EPA staff in Chicago that Pruitt himself was stepping into the process. “Administrator Pruitt is currently reviewing the next steps in Veolia’s permitting process,” Veolia lawyer Joseph Kellmeyer wrote on March 31, 2017. “I am certain that all parties involved do not wish to proceed in a manner inconsistent with Administrator Pruitt’s desires.”
This past June, the EPA issued a “final revised” permit, eliminating the mandated monitoring guidelines for the plant, leaving Cosey and her neighbors in the mostly poor, largely African American community angry and frustrated.
“I can’t hardly breathe,” says Cosey, who takes care of three great-grandchildren she says suffer from asthma, sinus infections and headaches. “For the government to not require them to have a monitor up is ludicrous.”
It was one in a string of decisions by the Trump administration to cut staff and relax or reverse environmental regulations and policies throughout the Midwest, a Better Government Association investigation has found.
Since Trump took office, about 150 fewer scientists, technicians and other employees are working in the EPA’s Chicago Region 5, covering Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio, according to EPA figures provided by the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704 in Chicago, the EPA employees’ union. The 945 employees in Region 5 this year compares to the 995 positions authorized by Congress, according to figures provided by the union and the EPA.
The number of inspections out of the Chicago office has plummeted by more than 60%, while inspections throughout the rest of the nation declined by 30%. The same pattern is true of enforcement actions aimed at getting polluters to change their actions through fines, cleanups and mitigation agreements.
The impact isn’t only being felt in towns such as East St. Louis and Cahokia, which are affected by the air quality in Sauget (pronounced saw-ZHAY). In the Chicago area, Illinois’ two U.S. senators have called for an investigation into whether politics played a part in curtailing EPA tests for cancer-causing gases at three suburban medical-equipment sterilization plants. In Minnesota, a copper and nickel mine is being allowed to discharge wastewater even though some EPA staffers have warned that threatens waterways that flow into the St. Louis River and Lake Superior.
Cathy Stepp, appointed under Trump to head the EPA Region 5 office, said in a public appearance in September that nearly 50 environmental regulations had been rescinded on Trump’s watch, saving taxpayers $3.7 billion. Stepp declined interview requests.
“Enforcement is an important tool to achieve compliance, but it is not the only tool,’’ says Rachel Bassler, a spokeswoman for the Chicago EPA office, who says the agency now relies more on “state assists” and self-audits.
Environmental groups fought for more than a decade for stiffer controls at the Veolia plant and began protests after Trump’s EPA started changing course.
The Obama EPA had issued a final permit Jan. 18, 2017 — two days before Trump’s inauguration — requiring the installation of monitors at all three stacks to continuously record emissions of mercury, lead, arsenic and other materials for one year. Previously, the plant would measure emissions every five years.
Veolia appealed the terms of the new permit. On March 27, 2017, the plant manager and company lobbyist — former downstate Democratic U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello — met with Pruitt, a longtime foe of the EPA and Trump’s pick to run the agency. Veolia argued that EPA restrictions required the purchase of $250,000 monitors that are largely untested and manufactured by only one company.
Veolia’s plant manager Doug Harris says such stringent monitoring wasn’t required at any other hazardous waste incinerators throughout the country.
Records show the agency noted Veolia’s history of pollution violations dating to at least 2006. Obama’s EPA cited the urgency of improved monitoring in the East St. Louis area, calling it an “overburdened” community that bears “environmental harms and risk as a result of cumulative impacts or greater vulnerability to environmental hazards.”
Harris downplays the role his meeting with Pruitt had in rescinding the Obama-era requirements. “For all I know, the Obama administration would’ve met with us,” he says.
Costello, who records show was paid $450,000 by Veolia to work on the company’s permit issues between 2015 and 2018, declined to comment.
Last year, Cosey and other East St. Louis residents were enlisted by a coalition of churches to oppose the company’s appeal.
“You are hurting my children and my community,” she says, sitting in the living room of her East St. Louis home. “It really was just an insult.”
She and her neighbors have never trusted the infrequent reports coming from the plant, which burns industrial sludge and other hazardous materials.
“It sets in your throat and in the hairs in your nose,” says the Rev. Norma Patterson, president of United Congregations of Metro East, a coalition of 27 churches.
When Sauget was incorporated in 1926, it was called Monsanto, having been developed as a company town for the chemical maker. From 1929 to 1977, Monsanto produced more than 500,000 tons of the now-banned polychlorinated biphenyls, PCBs, at a plant in Sauget. PCB contamination contributed to two nearby toxic-waste sites designated for cleanup by the EPA’s Superfund program. The town, population 159, is still home to several chemical plants and a massive regional sewage treatment plant.
“It’s a total disregard for the folks living around there,” says Dale Wojtkowski, whose environmental group American Bottom Conservancy has been battling the incinerator since 2004.
“It made me angry,” he says. “Especially since a lot of people put a lot of effort into it, and it affects a lot of people in an environmental justice community, lower-income people, and it seems to me they’re treated very unfairly.”
Veolia won its appeal this past June, when the EPA issued a revised permit that dropped the stricter monitoring requirements. The company instead agreed to install additional internal controls aimed at limiting only mercury emissions.
Sauget residents and their supporters say it’s impossible to know how effective those controls will be without monitors.
“For them to turn around something so different months after they issued a final permit is pretty dramatic,” says Elizabeth Hubertz, a lawyer with the environmental law clinic at Washington University in St. Louis, which is appealing the new permit on behalf of the American Bottom Conservancy.
In Minnesota last year, state environmental officials approved a permit for a copper mine — owned by PolyMet Mining — near the St. Louis River, a tributary of Lake Superior. The permit hit a snag six months later after a leaked EPA email suggested the permit was issued under circumstances that favored the mine. It said water-contamination concerns raised by the Chicago EPA staff overseeing the permit process were kept secret from the public at the request of Minnesota state officials.
The controversy prompted lawsuits from environmental groups over the permit and a federal investigation into the EPA’s oversight.
In August, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ordered the case be returned to district court for a “hearing and determination of alleged procedural irregularities related to the grant of the permit.”
The EPA’s inspector general opened an investigation in June.
A PolyMet spokesman says the permit addresses the EPA’s concerns and that the company hopes it ultimately will be allowed to start mining.
In Wisconsin last year, the Taiwanese company Foxconn was given a break from environmental regulators in its efforts to build a massive flat-screen electronics plant near Racine. That came after parts of Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana were given passing grades by the EPA on air quality against the advice of the agency’s scientific staff, emails show.
“There is no credible evidence to support this,” one EPA scientist, Jennifer Liljegren, wrote in April 2018 of a plan to declare southeast Wisconsin’s air quality to be in compliance with the federal Clean Air Act.
Liljegren’s email and others were obtained by environmental groups suing to reverse the decisions. The review of Wisconsin’s air was vital to the then-proposed plant. By declaring the air clean, the EPA gave Foxconn a pass on being required to buy air filters that are required in polluted areas.
Environmental groups have sued in an effort to reverse the decision.
In a speech last year at the Foxconn site, Trump said the plant symbolizes a manufacturing comeback under his presidency.
In January, Sen. Dick Durbin and Sen. Tammy Duckworth called for a federal probe of allegations of political interference in EPA decisions they say allowed cancer-causing chemicals into the air at three plants in Chicago’s suburbs. In a letter to the EPA’s inspector general, they asked for an investigation into whether Stepp halted air inspections related to the cancer-causing chemical ethylene oxide.
In their letter — prompted by complaints from an unnamed Chicago EPA staffer — the senators cited “politically motivated interference overriding recommendations of career staff.’’
Duckworth and Durbin have criticized the EPA’s oversight at Sterigenics International plant in Willowbrook, Medline Industries’ plant in Waukegan and the Vantage Specialty Chemical facility in Gurnee.
Sterigenics has since closed its facility after an order from the state and said it won’t reopen. The two plants in Lake County are still operating.
“That’s where we are right now,” Duckworth says. “To continue to put pressure on them but also to get an outside independent third party to take a look at what’s happening.”
Durbin says he fears staff cuts and regulatory favors for big business are threatening public health.
“If you remove the personnel that have a professional responsibility when it comes to inspections and enforcements, fewer are going to be done,” he says. “Some people who are vulnerable are going to find their health and safety compromised.”
Attorney General Kwame Raoul says he is challenging more than 40 of the Trump administration’s environmental and energy policies. “The need to act now is urgent, and in the absence of real leadership at the federal level,” Raoul says.
John Kim, director of the Illinois EPA, says federal policies “are weakening protections that have been effective and in place for years.”
All of the talk is little consolation to Mamie Cosey, whose three great-grandchildren are still breathing air she doesn’t trust is safe. Twice in the past two years, she says her 15-year-old great-granddaughter was rushed to a hospital with what Cosey feared were seizures.
“It’s not safe here,” she says. “They can’t go out and play. We wake up at night, and it smells like someone is cooking. My children say, ‘Granny, please shut the door.’ Kids should not have to live like that.
“We just learned to live with it. We shouldn’t have to do that in America,” Cosey says. “The EPA is supposed to protect the community and the people.”