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Sierra Club: Missouri air quality regulators need to better represent metro areas

Air pollution is visible in this view of the St. Louis skyline.
Missouri Department of Natural Resources
Air pollution is visible in this view of the St. Louis skyline.

The Missouri chapter of the Sierra Club plans to put pressure on state lawmakers to make sure St. Louis and Kansas City are better represented on the Missouri Air Conservation Commission. 

The commissioners are responsible for enforcing the Clean Air Act in Missouri. Members are appointed by the governor and approved by the state Senate. There are currently five commissioners and two vacant seats, which have been empty for some time. 

Environmental activists say that the current commissioners have been ineffective at addressing air quality in Missouri's metro areas. The St. Louis area doesn't meet federal air quality standards for ozone and Jackson County, which includes Kansas City, does not meet the federal air quality standards for sulfur dioxide. Both pollutants at elevated levels can pose a risk to children, the elderly and those with respiratory issues.

According to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, Kansas City and St. Louis have the highest rates of asthma-related emergency room visits. Additionally, five times more African-Americans than whites in Missouri have been admitted at emergency rooms for asthma. Missouri's African-American population is mainly concentrated in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas. 

John Hickey, director of the Sierra Club's Missouri chapter, argues that city representation is important for public health. None of the five commissioners comes from St. Louis or Kansas City. 

"There is a health care epidemic going on that's driven by bad air and yet we're not seeing any action from the Missouri Air Conservation Commission," Hickey said. 

Hickey emphasized that three of the five commissioners work for polluting industries. Gary Pendegrass, chairman of the commission and listed as representing the general public, is employed by GeoEngineers, where he is focused on a project to capture and store carbon dioxide generated by coal-burning power plants. Jack Baker, listed as representing agriculture, is the vice president of the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives, which operates two coal-fired power plants in the state. Mark Garnett, listed as representing industry, owns a lumber business, Garnett Wood Products.

"It's a case of the fox guarding the chicken house," Hickey said. "When the majority of the commission works for polluters, then you can't expect vigorous action in favor of public health." 

Last December, Gov. Jay Nixon nominated Douglas Drysdale, an environmental attorney with a St. Louis law  firm. However, the Missouri General Assembly did not approve Drysdale to the commission.  

"We need not just somebody who has an address in Kansas City or St. Louis," Hickey said. "We need someone who could be an advocate for clean air, the children and the elderly who are most impacted by air pollution. We have many qualified people in St. Louis; look at Washington University, look at BJC Healthcare. We have all the top experts in public health and air pollution here."

Follow Eli Chen on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.