Editor’s note: Cathy Talbott of the People’s Tribune interviewed Rev. Michael Atty of United Congregations of Metro-East (UCM), a peace and social justice organization, about efforts to unite impoverished working class communities in the metro-east area of St. Louis around poverty, environmental pollution, and social justice issues.
People’s Tribune: Rev. Atty, tell us about the communities you’re organizing in.
Rev. Atty: In United Congregations of Metro-East we have five clusters of churches. Our most active one is the Granite City cluster around environmental issues. [The cluster includes Alton and East St. Louis] and a couple of Superfund sites. Alton has an ash pit from the power plant there. Granite City was highly industrialized but as industries left the area, contaminates were left in the water and soil.
We’re currently in a fight with Veolia (Environmental Services, Inc.), which operates three incinerators in Sauget near East St. Louis, over their permit to burn hazardous waste. They don’t want to do the testing for heavy metals and ground runoff. Veolia was previously sued over the amount of arsenic they were releasing into the air.
This area of Illinois has a history of industrial contamination, environmental injustice compounded by racism and poverty. East St. Louis is majority African American and poor. Sixty percent of the residents live in public housing and don’t have a lot of resources to fight with. In Granite City and Alton there are a lot of poor whites with opioid problems. When people are worrying about paying for lights, transportation and food, the last thing they want to worry about is what’s in their air or water and soil.
Veolia got a provisional permit under Obama’s EPA requiring they monitor the arsenic released into the air. It’s up for renewal next year. But they’ve never made changes to test for heavy metals (like mercury and lead). They have been dragging it out for 10 to 12 years. A lot of politicians wrote letters of support for Veolia years ago. But we have a breach in our government, a chasm, a broken relationship between citizens and our government agencies that are supposed to protect and serve us. How do we make government work by the people, for the people? How do we hold industry and people in power accountable to our communities?
We’re holding a meeting November 15 and bringing communities together. We’re inviting elected officials to ask them to commit to repairing the breach. Our theme is “Restore, Repair, and Redeem.” Restore jobs and economic viability through clean energy jobs. Repair our environment and stop polluters like Veolia. Redeem our government by putting power back in the hands of the people.
PT: What is your vision for a better world?
RA: It’s a vision of the Beloved Community which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about. We don’t believe in scarcity. There’s enough for every child to be fed, for everyone to have shelter, health care and access to clean energy, air and water. All these things are possible but must be done by the masses, through the people. We believe the government should be put back into the hands of the community. People should have the right to vote and everybody participate. We believe we can live in communities where everyone is cared for and be truly human.