Trade war tradeoff: How a Missouri town got America's dirtiest air

www.reuters.com
5 min read
fairly difficult
The residents of New Madrid County cheered in 2018 when a bankrupt aluminum smelter that rises over the Missouri region's vast farm fields restarted operations and hiring, thanks to aluminum tariffs levied in President Donald Trump's trade war.
MARSTON, Missouri (Reuters) -

FILE PHOTO: A sign marking New Madrid County is seen on the side of a road outside Gideon, Missouri, U.S., May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/File Photo

The smelter reclaimed its place as one of New Madrid's biggest employers, with more than 500 workers. But the resurrection has come at a cost.

The soot pouring out of its smokestacks last year consistently produced the dirtiest air recorded in America, according to a Reuters review of pollution monitor data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (For a graphic on the pollution from the smelter's smokestacks, see tmsnrt.rs/2ZUAbrT )

The unhealthy air underscores the tension between industrial development and the environment as the Trump administration rolls back regulations on drilling, mining and manufacturing to boost the economy.

Charles Reali - the chief executive of Magnitude 7 Metals LLC, which owns the smelter - acknowledged the plant's high pollution levels in an interview with Reuters. But he said the only guaranteed way to fix the problem - installing a wet scrubber filtration system - would easily cost more than $100 million, an expense the plant's revenues will not support.

In a proposal that could directly impact New Madrid, Trump's EPA announced in April it would reject a proposal from the agency's scientific staff to tighten U.S. soot pollution standards. Health advocates claim the existing standards are too weak and are contributing to higher death rates during the coronavirus pandemic. New Madrid has recorded 15 cases of the disease and one death as of May 21, according to state and local authorities.

But in a county that ranks last or near the bottom in every quality of life and health standard, many people are willing to accept dirtier air in exchange for more jobs, according to interviews with two dozen residents there.

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