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Illinois environmentalists again push for the state to ban burning of toxic PFAS

An environmental activists holds a kites with a messages supporting a ban on PFAS incineration in front of industrial complexes in Sauget on April 22, 2021. After a similar bill was vetoed last year, environmental groups plan to introduce legislation that would ban the burning of the toxic class of chemicals.
Eric Schmid
St. Louis Public Radio
An environmental activist holds a kite with messages supporting a ban on PFAS incineration in front of industrial complexes in Sauget last April. After a similar bill was vetoed last year, environmental groups plan to introduce legislation that would ban the burning of the toxic class of chemicals.

Environmental groups in Illinois are again pushing for state lawmakers to pass legislation that would ban the incineration of a toxic class of chemicals known as PFAS.

This comes after the Illinois House and Senate both unanimously passed a nearly identical bill last year, before Gov. J.B. Pritzker vetoed it.

“We thought a unanimous vote in both houses was a sign that we were on the right road,” said Sonya Lunder, the Sierra Club’s senior toxics policy adviser, who was involved in the development of the bill.

PFAS refers broadly to thousands of synthetic chemicals found in common household products like nonstick cookware, waterproof clothing and stain repellent for carpet. It’s also one of the main components of many firefighting foams stored at municipal and military installations.

Pritzker ultimately vetoed the bill because of how incineration was defined. He said in a letter the bill would prohibit companies from using pollution control devices, like thermal oxidation, resulting in greenhouse gas emissions and the release of other hazardous air pollutants.

The chemistry of PFAS — a strong carbon-fluorine bond — means the substances don’t break down in human bodies and the environment. It has been linked to groundwater contamination, and exposure can cause cancer and other serious health ailments.

Last year’s legislation grew from concern over the Defense Department’s authorization of Veolia Environmental Services’ incinerator in Sauget to dispose of the substance. Lunder said it was designed to help communities like East St. Louis and Cahokia Heights, which have been overburdened with historic pollution.

“The bill made a lot of sense,” she said. “It passed because legislators understood this was a heavily impacted community by multiple types of contamination. We shouldn’t be adding new and questionable chemicals to their community.”

A spokesperson for Veolia said the company does not accept material where PFAS is identified, but notes that the chemical is common in many products and that it cannot ensure no PFAS pass through the Sauget incinerator.

Environmentalists also wanted to build from a similar law in New York that bans the burning of PFAS in certain communities.

“We needed to take a preemptive strike,” said Nicole Saulsberry, Sierra Club’s Illinois state government representative, at a recent virtual town hall.

“We wanted to take it a step further to ban PFAS incineration across the state no matter where it is.”

Lunder and other environmentalists pushed for a blanket ban on burning PFAS because of their concerns that the chemicals, which are designed to resist heat, don’t fully break down from incineration.

“Concerns that have been raised by the military and by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,” she said. “EPA made the recommendation in 2020 that it’s better to hold PFAS waste until better technologies are developed and validated to destroy it fully.”

Lunder explained contamination can easily escape from incinerators when they experience malfunctions.

A spokesman for the Illinois Manufacturing Association said about 10 companies contacted the association saying the legislation passed last year would negatively affect their ability to control pollution. He added the association supports the intent of the bill limiting commercial incineration, while not hurting what manufacturers can do.

“There were just a lot of last-minute, behind-the-scenes conversations and attempts to weaken the bill, and it didn’t get through the process in time during the veto session,” Lunder said.

There were also efforts to change the definition of PFAS to exclude newer versions of the chemicals, said Cheryl Sommer, United Congregations of Metro East president.

“Some were wanting a watered-down version that would make the bill not mean much of anything,” she said.

Sommer added that she and other local residents and organizers were frustrated by the bill’s veto last year.

“It’s shameful that people living in this community don’t seem to matter, that there’s no sense of urgency to them,” she said.

The legislation this year will be introduced in the coming weeks and uses a slightly narrower definition for incineration that advocates expect the governor won’t veto. State Rep. LaToya Greenwood, D-East St. Louis, sponsoredlast year’s bill and said she hopes the version this year won’t encounter much resistance.

“I hope that we’re able to do the same thing we did last year,” she said. “I’ve already been in conversations with my colleagues, and everyone is aware the legislation is returning for another vote.”

But Sommer said the legislation will likely face strong opposition from some groups, as it did last year.

“I know the reality of what we’re up against, which is people that want to keep things business as usual,” she 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. 

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