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Environmental Groups Across St. Louis Region Stress Unity In Push For Cleaner Air

Environmental advocates carry a sign saying "environmental justice knows no borders," toward the McKinley Bridge in Illinois on July 24. At a rally the same day, regional environmental groups stressed unity when looking to combat poor air quality.
Eric Schmid
St. Louis Public Radio
Environmental advocates carry a sign saying "environmental justice knows no borders," toward the McKinley Bridge in Illinois on Saturday at a rally for cleaner air.

VENICE — Seven local environmental and community-based organizations from St. Louis and the Metro East gathered Saturday morning at the base of the McKinley Bridge to rally against air pollution in the region.

The event drew scores of residents from both sides of the Mississippi River who are concerned about regional air quality. It was also a symbolic step to unify local communities in Missouri and Illinois that face similar air and respiratory challenges.

“The river may run through our communities, but this bridge and our humanity connects us. The air we breathe knows no boundaries,” said Virginia Woulfe-Baile, an environmental organizer with Piasa Palisades Sierra Club in Illinois.

The rally featured a march across the bridge and speakers from both sides of the river who often echoed each other's struggle against poor air.

East St. Louis resident Maime Cosey, 80, spoke of heavy air pollution in the community that’s keeping her great-grandchildren from having a normal childhood.

“There are days when they cannot go outside of our home and play, shoot ball, jump rope and all of the things that young children should be allowed to do,” she said. “We deserve better.”

St. Louis Third Ward Alderman Brandon Bosley described a similar reality for his children, who all have asthma. He suggested the city use some of its COVID relief money to install air monitoring in his community.

“Therefore when we have these conversations, we’ll actually have some analytics to go on and we can see what’s in our air, what we’re breathing,” Bosley said.

 Ward 3 Alderman Brandon Bosley speaking at a rally for clean air in Venice, Illinois on July 24. Bosley said he wants St. Louis to use COVID relief money to purchase air monitors for the community.
Eric Schmid
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Alderman Brandon Bosley is advocating for better monitoring air.

The event marked a shift in how environmental groups in Missouri and Illinois are approaching their advocacy work, specifically toward organizing together and building local political power.

“So often we are divided,” said Leah Clyburn, senior organizer for Missouri Beyond Coal. “That means not only are our stories not being told, but then our issues are not being dealt with.”

Before now, many of the region’s environmental groups focused primarily on their own state, she said. Under this different strategy Clyburn expects to collect more experiences from residents in the St. Louis region to strengthen the fresh ties between environmental groups in both states.

“We all come from different places and spaces in this movement,” she said. “We need to come together as a region and say, ‘No more.’ It’s time we call on our legislators and let them know we’re demanding change.”

Lifelong East St. Louisan Marie Franklin, 58, welcomes the opportunity to bridge the gap between East St. Louis and St. Louis.

“This was a great opportunity for us to come together for a common cause because clean air affects all of us,” she said. “It doesn’t stop at the border. It affects our Black and brown communities on both sides of the river.”

There’s strength in linking environmental issues in the Metro East and St. Louis, Franklin said. And other attendees echoed this sentiment.

“I was really excited to see a bi-state action,” said Sophie Watterson, 22, who lives in Botanical Heights. “It’s important after a year of hardship and community isolation that individuals and their communities feel like they have a moment to reclaim their power.”

Moving forward, environmental advocates in St. Louis and the Metro East look to flex their growing clout to take on environmental issues that transcend community boundaries in the region.

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.

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.