East St. Louis has dealt with a long history of environmental burdens and socioeconomic struggles. With only about 27,000 residents, more than 98% of the population is African American, about half of all residents are living below the poverty line and unemployment is about twice the state and national average [1, 2]. Chemical plants, waste incinerators, refineries and power plants have plagued this city for more than a century and has resulted in a disproportionate burden of lead poisoning, educational disparities, unemployment and toxic exposure among the residents of East St. Louis .See more...
East St. Louis was once a vibrant city. In the 1900s there were upwards of 80,000 people living there. Post-war industrial abandonment led to a loss of jobs and those who could afford to moved out in large numbers leading to a shrunken tax base . Local government, faced with fewer financial resources, abandoned many services that are commonplace in other communities. Garbage collection halted between 1987 and 1992, city employees were laid off and both the police and fire departments suffered funding shortages .
In the midst of this economic decline in East St. Louis is a smaller, incorporated area on the outskirts of the city called Sauget, suffering in a far deeper way. Only four square miles in size, there were just 249 residents in 2000. During the golden age of the region from the late 1800s to early 1900s, some companies incorporated areas just outside the city’s borders to allow them to completely escape taxation and political control. The main objective was to maximize profits while minimizing costs. As a result, government in these areas does not take care of public services or the general welfare of residents. Sauget has been suffering from significant air quality and flooding problems. Some of the original factories have closed but many of the environmental toxins remain in the soils which are exacerbated by flooding that occurs when aging infrastructure is overwhelmed . East St. Louis does not have the funds to reconstruct its sewer system and the problem is worsened because the chemical plants in Sauget and East St. Louis have released toxins into the sewer system for decades .
Companies in Sauget include Monsanto, which ranked 5th among US corporations for toxic releases in 1995; Onyx Environmental Services, a toxic waste incinerator that had multiple explosions and releases of clouds of poisonous gases into the air; Big River Zine, one of the top 10 facilities as far as on-site chemical releases and was the state’s third highest source of toxic chemicals release in 2002; and Pfizer which is now a Superfund site. In addition to these companies, there are four landfills in Sauget used to dispose of chemical waste products .
In 1988, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) conducted a study and reported that an average of 120 pounds of organic pollution migrated daily from Sauget. In 1999, the federal government filed a lawsuit demanding that the mayor, Paul Sauget, and the industrial companies remediate the pollution. In 2001, Sauget was added to the National Priority List because of all of the contaminants on the property, in ground water beneath the property, and in Mississippi River sediments adjacent to the Sauget property .
In addition to the numerous industrial companies in this small incorporated village of Sauget, there are many other facilities throughout and around East St. Louis, all of them emitting tons of pollutants into the air and negatively impacting the health of impoverished residents in East St. Louis. While air pollution has decreased over the past few decades, people are still dealing with the lasting effects on their health, namely respiratory illnesses . High asthma rates among children; exhaust from highways blanketing the area; backup of raw sewage into homes, schools and businesses whenever volume exceeds the capacity of infrastructure; and garbage collection available only to those who pay out of pocket are just a few of the characteristics of East St. Louis today . According to the IEPA, many children have elevated lead levels in their blood stream that affects their ability to learn and develop. The IEPA noted that a large percentage of the housing stock has lead contamination and that most exposure comes from lead paint. They also found during an investigation in 1999 that 11 of the 20 sites they tested had high lead levels in the soil .
Since 2006, IEPA cleaned up 14 open dump sites in East St. Louis, removing more than 6,000 tons of household garbage, plastics, glass, demolition debris and tires. They spent more than a half a million dollars removing used tires and awarded about $300,000 in Brownfield grants for cleanups and assessments .
In response to these environmental issues, many different programs and projects were developed. The East St. Louis Residential Lead Paint Outreach Collaborative , the East St. Louis Action Research Project , the Urban Extension Minority Access Program  and the Neighborhood Based Family Housing Program  are just a few. The Illinois EPA adopted environmental justice policies based on the principle that all citizens of Illinois should be protected from environmental pollution and have the right to a clean and healthy environment, regardless of their race or income level . They also formed an EJ Advisory Group to assist in developing and adopting environmentally just policies and established an Environmental Justice Officer to serve as a liaison between citizens and communities, and Agency staff.