EPA says community involvement vital to address environmental racism in East St. Louis area

Kathy Jones, an elder at Good Shepherd Faith United Church, speaks on Saturday during a public meeting held at the church to address environmental issues in the East St. Louis area. She talked about her family’s health struggles while growing

Image by Tristen Rouse/St. Louis Public Radio

When Kathy Jones was growing up in East St. Louis in the 1950s, she says her family believed her hay fever as well as other conditions like asthma that affected her siblings and grandmother were hereditary.

“We didn’t know that the environment was what was making us sick. But we suffered through that,” Jones said.

Jones spoke on the health consequences of the pollution emitted from nearby factories.

“Nobody was concerned about us, and we were not knowledgeable enough at the time to realize that big business did this to us, and our government didn’t care,” Jones said.

Jones’ comments were part of a public meeting held in East St. Louis on Saturday on what steps the community can take along with the government to address environmental racism.

The meeting took place after Matthew Tejada, EPA deputy assistant administrator for environmental justice, toured the area documenting illegal dumping sites, areas that flood and places with other persistent problems.

Tejada said the work that needs to be done to fix these injustices is going to take time.

“We know the things that have caused the disinvestment in places like Cahokia Heights and East St. Louis, the racism, the impression, the genocide of communities in these areas. Those are things that are going to be generations of us working to correct,” Tejada said.

EPA Environmental Justice Deputy Matthew Tejada holds a microphone while speaking. To his right is Illinois politician Nikki Budzinski.
EPA Environmental Justice Deputy Matthew Tejada, left, and U.S. Rep. Nikki Budzinski, D-Springfield, speak on Saturday at Good Shepherd Faith United Church. They were hosted by United Congregations of Metro-East after Tejada took a tour of illegal dumping sites, areas with chronic flooding and the Veolia incinerator.

Through the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Act and other funding, Tejada said, there is once-in-a-lifetime money going toward countering the effects of environmental racism.

However, he said, East St. Louis won’t see any of the funding available to fix those issues if the community doesn’t let convey what needs to be done.

“If there’s ever been a time for coming together, it is right now. And to start setting that agenda for your local government, for your state, for your utilities, for us, and holding us accountable, to drive those resources down there within your reach,” Tejada said.

On what the EPA is doing now to rectifying these injustices, Tejada said that he couldn’t speak to anything planned right now, but that the biggest step he was hopeful about was the batch of grants the department would be releasing over the next few months.

He said those grants would go toward a variety of forms of environmental monitoring that citizens want — “whether it is sampling for contamination in the ground, whether it is for water sampling, or water monitoring, or whether it is for air quality monitoring.”

Two women of color, both wearing indigenous necklaces and decorated hats, sit in a crowd. The one on the right uses a cloth handkerchief to wife a tear from her eye.
Basmin Nadra, right, wipes her eyes while sitting next to Saundi McClain-Kloeckener on Saturday, during a public meeting at Good Shepherd Faith United Church on environmental issues in the East St. Louis area. The two women are members of the Native Women’s Care Circle, a Native American prayer group, and led those who attended in prayer, in the form of a song, to begin the meeting.

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