As workers return to Granite City's steel mill, controversy continues about the mill's environmental impact and many look to upcoming research that may shed further light on Madison County's air quality.
U.S. Steel has declined comment, and county officials have protested the results of a study released a few weeks ago by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The study looks at toxic air pollutants that put residents at a higher risk of contracting cancer.
The study ranked Madison County second only to Los Angeles for poor air quality. The metro-east is one of two "non-attainment" areas in the state for air pollution.
U.S. EPA spokeswoman Kathy Milbourn said the average total risk is 36 per million, meaning the average person has a 36 in 1-million chance of contracting cancer based on the air quality. Madison County's air quality is high in only six of 40 tracts.
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But those tracts are high enough to put up an environmental red flag. Granite City registered at 84 in 1 million, Madison at 114 in 1 million. One tract measured 1,140 in 1 million. Milbourn said that tract covered the coke oven adjacent to U.S. Steel Corp.-Granite City Works.
"Air quality can not only change from city to city, but neighborhood to neighborhood," she said. "The further you get away from the coke oven, the risk drops."
But County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan took issue with the findings, pointing out that they were based on 2002 readings predating the purchase of the former Granite City Steel by U.S. Steel.
"It was very frustrating for us," Dunstan said. "It's a very small part, only a few census tracks right around the coke plant."
Dunstan pointed out that U.S. Steel is building a new coke plant, which he said will have state-of-the-art air emissions controls.
"U.S. Steel has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to bring those facilities completely in line with EPA standards in the six years of its ownership," Dunstan said. "While there may have been some emissions problems at the coke plant in 2002, any problems that may have existed were corrected by the current ownership."
U.S. Steel spokeswoman Erin DiPietro declined to comment on the study or on any discussions with the EPA and plant improvements. The plant recently recalled more than 800 workers, six months after its 2,200 employees were furloughed.
Jay Turner, a chemical engineering professor with Washington University, recently analyzed emissions from the Granite City plant for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and reported on them to the East-West Gateway Council. His data compared particle emissions from 2001-2004 and 2004-2007, which is not quite the same as the cancerous emissions tracked by the EPA study but includes numbers before and after improvements at the plant.
Turner said he has not seen a dramatic change in the plant's numbers. "I would think you'd be seeing immediate (improvement) if you're putting in better controls," he said. "And I don't see a dramatic change in the local emissions of fine particles."
By contrast, Turner said, he has tracked the emissions of a similar steel plant in Dearborn, Mich., and there was an immediate reduction in particles after improvements were made.
According to the minutes of the Air Quality Assessment Commission, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has met with U.S. Steel twice in the last six months to discuss making improvements to the steelworks while it is idling. The federal EPA's online records show the Granite City plant has been in noncompliance for 12 of the last 12 quarters.
Jim Ross, IEPA air pollution control division manager, said it is not uncommon for industrial sites to have some violations. "They can be as small as missing a filing date all the way up to an air pollution device failing," he said. "Just because it says there's a violation doesn't tell me a lot."
Ross said he could not address what specific violations U.S. Steel had incurred, but said there is an "ongoing enforcement action" that is being settled between U.S. Steel and the Illinois Attorney General's office.
As to the 2002 study, Ross said they "have some questions as to what is the most accurate data." He agreed that the data is outdated, and said the 2005 study should be released in August.
"My understanding is that emissions have decreased," he said.
Meanwhile, Ross said the plant is making some improvements to the basic-oxygen-furnished shop -- the highest source of emissions after the coke plant -- and upgrades to control equipment. The old coke oven may not even reopen, he said, because there is a large quantity stockpiled and the new coke ovens will be online this fall.
Dunstan said the steel plant is of high priority to the county. "We just had 2,000 people laid off; we want to get that plant reopened," he said. "We want to do everything we can to help them, and I know they want to be good neighbors."
But others believe the 2002 data should be a warning.
"Instead of putting our heads in the sand and pretending the air is clean, we should be trying to find ways to assure that U.S. Steel puts on the controls that are needed to bring our area into attainment with federal air quality standards," said Kathy Andria of the American Bottom Conservancy. "We need to bring air quality into attainment for health reasons, for the people who live here. ... It's the responsible thing to do."
The American Lung Association gave Madison County a grade of F in its most recent air quality report, due to 55 orange-alert days and four red days in 2008. The association lists Madison County with 5,666 children and nearly 17,000 adults with asthma, 7,000 with chronic bronchitis and 3,500 with emphysema.
Spokesman Robert Moffitt called those numbers "significant."
"There's no doubt that in recent years, in many places, air pollution has gotten better, and that's great," Moffitt said. "But it's reports like this that lead to more actions, and I think we need to do more. ... Everyone deserves the right to breathe healthy air. This is completely nonpartisan and nonpolitical -- we all need to breathe. It is basic to everyone's health."
But do toxins in the air actually lead to higher cancer rates?
The Illinois Department of Public Health tracked 2006's five-year cancer mortality rates at 68.4 per 100,000 residents for Madison County and 60.1 per 100,000 for St. Clair County, which is significantly higher than the state rate of 51.9 per 100,000. Premature cancer deaths -- those before age 65 -- rank at 22.9 per 100,000 for Madison County and 25.5 per 100,000 for St. Clair County, compared to 17.2 percent for the state average.
Cancer has been listed in the last two five-year health plans the Madison County Health Department has prepared for its reaccreditation, specifically citing a higher lung cancer rate than the state average.
Turner said the forced six-month shutdown of the plant will actually help measure Granite City Steel's impact on air in the metro-east. The monitors have continued sampling during the shutdown, and the numbers will be available in a couple of months.
"It will be a fascinating experiment," he said.