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Bloomington-Normal Gets 'B' In Ozone Quality Report As Peoria Struggles

Heart of Illinois Sierra Club Secretary and Conservation Co-Chair Joyce Blumenshine says bad air quality can lead to the most costs for those who can least afford them. She said citizen advocacy has led companies and governments to make changes to protect the environment.
Heart of Illinois Sierra Club Secretary and Conservation Co-Chair Joyce Blumenshine says bad air quality can lead to the most costs for those who can least afford them. She said citizen advocacy has led companies and governments to make changes to protect the environment.

The American Lung Association's annual State of the Air report has produced mixed results for Peoria and Bloomington-Normal. Local advocates say Peoria County in particular has come a long way, but there's still more work to be done to deal with the effects of climate change.

Peoria County received a D ozone grade based off the area's number of days of bad air quality between 2017 and 2019, though it received an A for 24-hour particle pollution. McLean County earned a B based on the former metric, and an A based on the latter.

Will Barrett is the director of clean air advocacy for the American Lung Association of California. Barrett said ozone pollution can lead to heart attacks, or even death.

"We know that these impacts are significant, and they can have a real impact on people's daily lives, and even short exposures to these pollutants can have significant health outcomes," said Barrett. "We still have a long way to go to ensure all Americans breathe clean, healthy air."

Barrett said Bloomington is one of the cleanest cities in Illinois when it comes to air pollution.

Joyce Blumenshine is secretary and conservation co-chair with the Heart of Illinois Sierra Club. She said Bloomington-Normal's higher standing in the report compared to Peoria can be explained by McLean County's lack of coal power plants, as well as the area having many less industrial plants causing air pollution than Peoria.

She said while Peoria is lucky to have the industries it does, those plants can have a significant impact on air quality.

"Whether it's the gas fired additional power plant up at Caterpillar, or whether it's ADM, all of these industries are emitting particles and pollution into the air," said Blumenshine.

Blumenshine said while the current state of Peoria in that regard is hardly ideal, it's better than it has been.

"It's been continuous years of citizen advocacy for cleaner air that's gotten these companies in many ways to respond, that's gotten the state and the federal government to make regulations that actually protect our health," said Blumenshine. "But we have a long way to go, and we don't have much time because climate change, climate crisis is happening now."

She said bad air quality can especially impact the 55,000 people of color who live in Peoria County.

"Whether it means they can't go to work because they have an asthma attack or their child does, or, you know, whatever reason, these are huge costs to those who can least afford it," said Blumenshine. "That is not fair, and it is not right."

As for what can be done to deal with climate change, Heart of Illinois Sierra Club Chair Robert Jorgensen said keeping an eye on how much people use electricity and air conditioning can make a significant difference.

"You think, well, why aren't people doing that?" said Jorgensen. "It's easy. It's, you're saving money as well as pollutants."

Blumenshine said everyone can help in dealing with dangerous ozone levels, and she said technology such as solar energy can help to clean up the air.

"I think, you know, as Americans, we're just accustomed to do what we want to do and not think about the cumulative impacts on our area," said Blumenshine. "We need to be smart about this. We have the technology now to change and do better."

Jorgensen said the responsibility to take action against climate change also falls on the area's businesses. The Edwards coal power plant in Peoria, for example, is set to be shut down by the end of 2022.

Jorgensen and Blumenshine have advocated for the passage of the Clean Energy Jobs Act in the Illinois General Assembly. State Sen. David Koehler of Peoria is a co-sponsor of the bill. Among other effects, the bill would aim to develop the renewable energy workforce in an equitable way on the path toward getting the state to 100% renewable energy in 2050. Attempts to pass the bill this year have stalled in the House, and are likely to stall in the Senate as well.

Will Barrett from the American Lung Association for California said as technology such as renewable energy makes progress, the resulting benefits need to be shared equitably.

"What we need to see is significant investments and actions to clean up our air and address climate change," said Barrett. "We need to make sure that those actions and investments are targeted to communities that are most impacted today by poor air quality."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said increased ozone levels can lead not only to an increased occurrence of health problems, but also to harm for plants such as wheat and soybeans that Illinois farmers grow each year.

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Christine Hatfield, a graduate student in University of Illinois Springfield's Public Affairs Reporting program, is WGLT and WCBU's PAR intern for the first half of 2021.