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Southern Illinois University students help make improvements to the Granite City Ozone Garden during a recent work day.
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Southern Illinois University students help make improvements to the Granite City Ozone Garden during a recent work day.
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Local schoolchildren tour the Granite City Ozone Garden earlier this year.
Despite air quality improving in Madison County, it still ranks first in ozone pollution, also known as smog, in Illinois, and 18th in the nation, according to 2012-2014 data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality System.
The data resulted in the American Lung Association issuing Madison County a failing grade in its 2016 State of the Air report, even though when compared to the 2015 report, Madison County experienced fewer unhealthy days of high ozone.
“The 2016 State of the Air report finds unhealthful levels of ozone in Madison County, putting our local citizens at risk for premature death and other serious health effects such as asthma attacks and cardiovascular harm,” said Michael Kolleng, Healthy Air Campaign manager of the American Lung Association in Illinois.
While the average number of ozone action days decreased from 26.2 days in the 2015 report to 19.2 in the 2016 report, Madison County still had the highest annual weighted average number of high ozone days in Illinois. Cook County was right behind with a weighted average number of 19 high ozone days.
When gases from tailpipes, smokestacks and other sources come in contact with sunlight, they react and form ozone smog. High smog levels are dangerous to health, and Madison County had a total of 47 orange ozone action days, and seven red ozone action days listed in the 2016 report.
According to the Air Quality Index, orange days are considered unhealthy for sensitive groups, and children, active adults and people with respiratory diseases, like asthma, should limit prolonged outdoor activities. Red days indicate smog levels which are unhealthy for everyone, and all people should limit outdoor exertion.
Carbon monoxide emissions
Madison County also emits more point source carbon monoxide pollution than any other county in Illinois, according to the Illinois Environmental Agency’s 2014 Air Quality Report.
But Brian P. Urbaszewski, director of Environmental Health Programs at the Respiratory Health Association in Chicago, said citizens should be more concerned with high ozone and fine particle levels. Because of their small size, particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5) are believed to pose significant health risks by lodging deep within lungs, according to the EPA.
“If you look at federal health standards for CO in that 2014 IEPA report, and what is measured on the ground at air monitoring stations, it seems the levels of CO in the air recorded by those monitors is nowhere near what would trigger health concerns,” Urbaszewski said. “Ozone levels and PM2.5 levels are much closer to levels that trigger health concerns, and in some cases, exceed the level where a health warning is issued.”
Problems with data processing in Illinois, Florida and most of Tennessee prevented the 2016 State of the Air report from featuring information on particle pollution levels in those states.
However, Urbaszewski said CO, a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas that is slightly less dense than air, can cause much more localized issues and illnesses.
“You still could have very localized problems with CO,” Urbaszewski said. “When a boiler that heats a building malfunctions it can fill a building or school with CO and a lot of people get sick. People can still burn wood inside with a stove or fireplace without adequate ventilation and sicken or kill themselves, too. But these are very local, very specific issues within buildings and have nothing to do with big industrial sources affecting the quality or health of ambient air in a community. CO is a dangerous chemical, but how much you are actually breathing — and at what concentration — drives the health impacts.”
Improving air quality
Madison County Sustainability Coordinator Kim Petzing said areas like Madison County, with high populations and more buildings, cars and businesses, create a lot of emissions and use large amounts of energy.
“There are a lot of factors at play, which contribute to poor air quality, and it is hard to pinpoint specific causes for air quality improvement,” Petzing said. “Transportation is a huge source of pollution. Air moves in from St. Louis, and pollution from that side of the river could be causing poor air quality over here.”
County officials are focused on promoting air quality awareness, and the county offers funding for environmental projects within the community, Petzing said.
Petzing is planning a Fall Health Forum called “The Air We Breathe, The Food We Eat” from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21, at the Caseyville Community Center. The event will aim to connect the dots between food, health and air quality. Participation in the forum is free and lunch will be provided. Registration is required because a limited number of seats are available. Those interested can register at Health_Forum.eventbrite.com.
“We are also currently working on a sustainability plan that will recommend best practices,” she said. “We are in the process of getting feedback to discover topics of concern, on which we need to focus. Air quality will definitely be one of them. We hope to get that completed and approved by this November.”
Elizabeth Scrafford, an organizing representative with the Sierra Club, said she believes it’s every elected official’s duty to improve air quality.
“Each government official, from local to state to federal, is responsible for protecting the citizens of Madison County and Illinois,” Scrafford said. “At a local level, our mayors can be a part of ordinances that allow more clean energy in the cities, like the Solarize Godfrey project in Godfrey. At a state level, there is the Clean Jobs Bill, which would help the state transition into a clean energy future, as well as help coal communities transition. President Obama introduced the Power Plus Plan that is now before Congress. It would provide funding to help coal communities transition away from coal and recover economic losses.”
Even with these efforts under way, Scrafford said the Sierra Club is still concerned with Madison County’s air quality.
“Until recently we had a coal plant operating in the county without proper air pollution controls, and pollution from Missouri coal plants often blows our way,” Scrafford said. “We are also concerned with air pollution from the local refinery and steel mill.”
Committed to air quality, the Sierra Club and the American Bottoms Conservancy brought attention to the fact that U.S. Steel and SunCoke Energy were in violation of the Clean Air Act. This action resulted in a consent decree, because of which a $5 million trust was established to mitigate air quality in Granite City, Madison and Venice.
“The U.S. Steel Trust has helped improve air quality in Madison County,” said Sierra Club Three Rivers Project Coordinator of the Piasa Palisades Group Virginia Woulfe-Beile. “Many air quality improvement projects have been put in place with the U.S. Steel trust funding.”
The trust, which was set up in 2008, awarded $4.2 million worth of air quality projects to school districts, community colleges and other agencies and municipalities. While approximately $800,000 remains to be awarded, the trust partners are in the process of making an award that will exhaust the funds.
“Even after the trust is exhausted, air quality will remain a priority,” Woulfe-Beile said. “The trust has done much to raise awareness in the community and engaged elected officials, organizations and institutions, while providing the resources needed to be vigilant and proactive, in the pursuit of improved air quality.”
The Granite City Green Fleet, which consists of 20 electric and hybrid vehicles that replaced many old gas vehicles, resulted from the U.S. Steel Trust. The fleet removes an estimated 120 tons of exhaust gases from the air annually, and also reduces the use of fuel by 13,000 gallons and engine oil by 110 gallons each year.
Due to trust funds, Southwestern Illinois College’s Sam Wolf Granite City Campus and the Madison Fire House will soon both install solar arrays, which will produce and distribute solar power to a grid. The arrays will save energy costs and help local electric utilities meet Illinois renewable power generation mandates.
“The trust has also improved indoor air quality by funding weatherization projects, energy-efficient heating and cooling systems and lighting retrofits in Madison Elementary School, Six Mile Library and Riverbend Head Start’s Granite City Facilities,” Woulfe-Beile said. “Each project that is awarded must have an educational component. For example, Six Mile Library created a Clean Air Repository for their website.”
The Clean Air Repository, smrld.org/clean-air-repository, contains resources concerning air quality and the agencies involved in issuing air quality permits.
Making ozone pollution visual
The purpose of the Granite City Ozone Garden is to educate Madison County residents about air quality by featuring plants that show visual damage when ozone pollution is high. The Granite City Fire Station at 2240 Rock Road is home to the garden, one of five Saint Louis University Ozone Gardens in the St. Louis area.
“The project is a gift to the community through an EPA grant award,” said Linda Aud, lead coordinator for the project. “The grant proposal, which included the ozone garden, was written by the United Congregations of Metro-East. The goal in doing the project was to provide a service to the community of Granite City by informing the residents about air quality and health. We entitled the project A Visual Approach to Educating a Community about Air Quality.”
The ground for the garden was dug and raised beds were prepared in the spring of 2015. The garden was planted shortly after. This spring, a fence around the garden, ozone monitor, water hydrant and solar panel were all installed. A flag pole has been purchased to fly both the American flag and an air quality flag to alert the public of the daily air quality conditions.
“Jeff Rains, a retired steelworker and member of the Granite City Community Gardens, put many hours of work into the garden,” Aud said. “A champion of the garden, he is not only the gardener, but also one of the reasons the garden exists. And Kelley Belina is the manager of the Ozone Garden Network and one of our partners. Both Jeff and Kelley are dedicated to making the garden a success. I appreciate them, and everyone else who has helped, tremendously.”
Besides the Ozone Garden, this visual approach also includes the Citizen Air Quality Monitoring Network, the EPA Flag Program using the Air Quality Index and Air Quality Forecast, Educational Bulletin Boards at six educational sites, plus all the schools in Granite City, and educational presentations with brochures.
“Kim Petzing was the green schools coordinator and partner for the EPA School Flag Program for this project,” Aud said. “The Green Schools Program provided the air quality flags for all the educational sites and the schools.”
Six Mile Library District Executive Director Tina Hubert and IT and Facilities Manager Tallin Curran help house the GO3 Ozone Monitor and the MetOne Particulate Matter Monitor at the library. Tallin installed and maintains the monitoring equipment.
“All educational sites have a display board with information about the objectives of the project, which includes information about ozone and particulate matter, their sources and health risks, what residents can do to keep safe and healthy during days when the air quality is unhealthy, and what they as residents can do to improve their air quality and health.”
Tours of the Ozone Garden are available by appointment, and the last tours for this year will be offered in September. Those interested can sign up at the Six Mile Library or by email at granitecityozonegarden@Yahoo.com.
Education aside, local experts all agree that there are many things Madison County citizens can personally do to help everyone breathe easier, including carpooling, composting food, shopping closer to home and installing energy-efficient appliances and solar panels.
The village of Godfrey’s Climate Protection and Energy Efficiency Committee has partnered with Straight Up Solar for a community bulk solar outreach campaign entitled Solarize Godfrey, which encourages community members to learn about solar and install energy generating solar systems in their homes and/or businesses.
“While state and federal incentives can decrease the price of solar by upward of 60 percent, the Solarize Godfrey program features a base discount paired with bulk volume milestones that further reduce the cost of going solar,” said Nate Keener, chairperson for the Climate Protection and Energy Efficiency Committee. “Solarize Godfrey gives businesses and residents 15 percent off the market rate of installing solar energy generating systems, and the more people who participate, the deeper the discount.”
The program has already passed the 50-kilowatt (kW) milestone that triggered an additional 2 percent discount for participants. Solarize Godfrey proponents hope the village’s additional actions will help push the program over the 75 kw milestone soon.
“The village of Godfrey has also stepped up to the plate to further incentivize businesses in the business district to go solar,” Keener said. “Through the end of the Solarize Godfrey campaign, commercial installations in the Godfrey Business District can receive a reimbursement of material costs for solar renewable energy of up to $3,000. Godfrey is one of only three communities in Illinois to offer a specific local incentive for going solar.”
Program pricing ends Sept. 30. Those interested can sign up for a free solar site assessment at straightupsolar.com/solarize-godfrey or by calling (844) 97-SOLAR.
“Burning of fossil fuels can cause air pollution and increased incidence of asthma, and since Madison County already gets a failing grade from the American Lung Association for its poor air quality, increasing the deployment of solar renewable energy generating systems will decrease the use of dirty fossil fuels, which will decrease air pollution and the incidence of asthma,” Keener said. “I highly encourage people to take advantage of this program.”
Those interested in learning more about Madison County’s air quality can access the American Lung Association State of the Air data at bit.ly/MadisonCoStateoftheAir.