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.
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.
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.”