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St. Louis Communities With Polluted Air Are More Vulnerable To The Coronavirus

Ameren Missouri's Labadie Energy Center next to the Missouri River
Labadie Environmental Organization
Some people in Missouri and Illinois who live near industrial facilities, like Ameren Missouri's Labadie Energy Center, are worried about their health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sauget resident Mamie Cosey has complained for years about odors and air pollution from a Veolia incinerator located about a mile from her house. 

In recent weeks, Cosey has grown increasingly concerned about the spread of the coronavirus and how it could affect her grandchildren, who have asthma and sinus problems. She has reason to worry. Harvard University researchers found this month that people who have lived with long-term air pollution are more likely to die of COVID-19. 

That frightens Cosey and others who live near industrial facilities in the St. Louis region.

“I live in fear on a daily basis, if you really want to know the truth,” said Cosey, 79. “[The pollution] impacts your breathing on a daily basis. Not only that, it’s coupled with what’s out there. I’ve been in my house since March the 17th, and I’ll be in my house until December the 17th if need be.” 

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced plans in November to investigate the Veolia incinerator for heavy metal emissions

The Harvard study examined exposure to particle pollution, the fine dust and soot that come from automobiles, coal-fired power plants and other industrial sources. The coronavirus pandemic provides another reason to clean the air for people who live around polluters, said Patricia Schuba, an environmental activist who’s lived near Ameren Missouri’s Labadie Energy Center for more than four decades. 

“It’s frightening to think about the implications, but COVID-19 has reminded us that our health is really fragile and air pollution poses a cost to all of us,” Schuba said. 

The Labadie Energy Center is one of the highest emitters of sulfur dioxide in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency. A federal judge last fall ordered Ameren to install equipment to control pollution at the Rush Island Energy Center in Festus, after finding that the power plant had violated the Clean Air Act. 

The American Lung Association reported Tuesday that the St. Louis region has one of the worst annual levels of particle pollution in the country. Its report noted that levels of ozone in the area have increased in the past few years. St. Louis has struggled to meet federal standards for ozone, a toxic gas that can cause respiratory problems. 

Among the people who suffer the most from long-term air pollution are people of color, said Ed Smith, a campaign representative for the Sierra Club. 

“A respiratory virus is compounding these racial disparities and access to medical resources,” Smith said. “The cleaner air we have, the more positive impact it will have on minority communities and poor people.”

EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler last week rejected a plan to strengthen federal limits on dust and soot particle pollution from power plants. He also proposedrolling back a regulation imposed during the Obama administration that restricts the amount of heavy metal pollution that industrial facilities can emit. 

The federal agency also announced in late March that it would relax its enforcement of environmental laws during the pandemic. 

“It’s a tough time to live around facilities where you can’t trust that the government is enforcing the environmental permits those operations have to pollute the air that we’re breathing,” Smith said. 

Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

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