The Toxification of St. Clair County, Illinois
by Sam R. Pessin, People United for a Recyclable Environment
In August of 1990, citizens of East Carondolet, Illinois defeated a proposal by Thermal Disposal Systems (TDS) to locate a medical waste incinerator in their town. This incinerator would have burned the combined wastes of over 40 hospitals in Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri. East Carondolet politicians were ready to sneak the incinerator through when over 200 people packed into a town council meeting. Several members of People United for a Recyclable Environment (PURE) were among the crowd, passing out leaflets and talking to people.
We explained the uselessness and the dangers of the TDS proposal. Up to 85% of hospital waste is material which can be separated and recycled, such as household items, paper, and cafeteria waste. Less than 5% of the waste is pathological. The remaining is infectious waste and "sharps." Most, if not all, of the pathological waste and infectious waste can be autoclaved. This process super-heats steam under pressure in order to prepare the waste for being safely dumped into a landfill. After you have taken out all the paper, most hospital waste is plastics. In municipal waste, plastics represent 7-10% of the waste stream; in hospital waste, it is 30-40%. If incinerated, plastics present a grave danger: when burned, they create dioxins and furans, along with releasing heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury, lead, — and even PCBs.
While we may have "fanned the flames of discontent," most citizens were already more than skeptical of the proposed blessing to their town. Our fact sheets confirmed what they already suspected. With overwhelming (and quite vocal) opposition from its citizens, E. Carondolet politicians backed down and refused the gracious offer of TDS.
The town of E. Carondolet, located across the river from St. Louis in St. Clair County, presents an interesting, though not uncommon paradox. The citizens of E. Carondolet defeated the planned TDS incinerator. Yet, overall the toxic waste problem in St. Clair County continues to grow. Local skirmishes are the starting point of any campaign to confront toxics. But they cannot end there. What happens locally needs to set the stage for a network of interconnected battles if we are going to win.
St. Clair County ranks second out of five counties in the Midwest that contributed more than 25% of the nation's "reported' 6.32 billion pounds of toxics in 1988. St. Clair County also has the honor of being ranked second highest in concentration of hazardous waste in Illinois. Cook County ranks number one. So far, St. Clair has several hazardous waste sites known to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA). Three are in East St. Louis, two (only?) are in Sauget, one in Fairmount City and one in New Athens. Most sites are ponds or streams that have been used for decades for dumping wastes from presently-operating or defunct factories. Although these sites are accessible to the general public, the IEPA has no money this year for emergency clean-ups, to investigate who, where and why these people did what they did, or find out who is liable.
Dead Creek used to run through Sauget and Cahokia, but was dammed (damned?) years ago. The creek was used for a dump by both industry and the nearby residents. Stories of dogs bursting into flames and children on their bikes catching fire are not uncommon. IEPA says that it's going to take decades and tens of millions of dollars to clean it up. One doesn't have to be a genius to figure out where the contaminated soil might be taken—to Sauget's own "Chemkill" Waste Management, alias Trade Waste Incinerators. Some clean-up has started with Cerro Copper spending $13 million to clean a 1,200 foot section of the creek. Monsanto is still negotiating an agreement to study the extent of pollution at the site.
In 1988 a $1 million study identified six parts of the former creek and a dozen other hazardous sites in Sauget. In this study, the IEPA reported that an average of 120 pounds of organic pollution migrated daily from the Sauget sites. The Illinois Attorney General's office is telling individuals and companies that they must pay for part of the clean-up. But the level of pollution is so high that sites like the one that Cerro Copper cleaned up last year are again in danger of recontamination. Its neighbors are feeling the pinch of living near a Superfund site. A house, situated on a well-kept block, recently sold for a whopping $5,000.
From 1927 to 1973, Moss American treated railroad ties with creosote and other chemicals. This defunct factory still has stacks of railroad ties and barrels of toxic waste at its Sauget site. Linda Bethey and her 12 year old daughter, Christy, have lived one house away from the site for two years. "I really don't think about it," said Bethey from her home. "They fenced it off and cut down all the weeds."
Residue from leaking drums contaminated the soil and groundwater over several decades and, at one point, more than 100 drums of creosote residue were stored there. Kerr-Mcgee owned the site from 1963-1969 and the IEPA indentified them as a responsible party in its pollution. Settling lagoons, polluted with creosote, along with the drums and asbestos, have been removed. IEPA has said they are pleased with the way Kerr-McGee is cleaning up the area.
James Markle owns two of the most infamous hazardous waste sites in St. Clair County, including the Wastex Research, Inc. in East St. Louis. They accepted paint and other solvents for blending into a secondary fuel. They did business with more than 170 companies, including Ford Motor Co. and Anheuser Busch Co. Today it is an abandoned building, sitting on very contaminated soil with 7,000 drums of liquid and semi-solid chemical waste which are all that remain of the company. There are also 13,000 gallons of PCB-contaminated waste oil and an additional 358,000 gallons of liquid and semi-solid waste in storage tanks. The IEPA estimates this site will also take tens of millions of dollars and decades to clean up.
Next is Lanson Chemical, also in East St. Louis. A section of Lanson Chemical is fenced off. The IEPA said that wastes leaking for decades have poisoned the groundwater and are a threat to public health. In 1988 the IEPA designated Lanson a hazardous waste site, but was unable to continue a study of chemicals at the site because it ran out of money. Lanson Chemical produced lacquers, resin, and other paint-related products. Five hundred drums of waste have been removed, but IEPA says it would take over $2.5 million to clean up the remaining wastes and groundwater contamination.
East St. Louis' third site is the abandoned Lefton Iron and Metal Company on Brady Avenue. Another abandoned shell of a factory stands on this site, surrounded by PCB-contaminated soil. With money as tight as it is, the IEPA asked the USEPA to step in and clean the property and bill its owner. The cost has yet to be determined.
IEPA has stated that the sites mentioned are the most toxic in St. Clair County. I'm sure if IEPA had the money to spend we could find many more—probably sites which are even more contaminated. Who knows what those chemical plants did during the years before the EPA came on the scene? I'm sure we can get a pretty vivid mental picture.
Now St. Clair County, along with Madison and Monroe counties, is looking at a proposal to incinerate 75% of the combined generated trash of the three counties. It would only "attempt" to recycle 25%. A new law passed in Illinois says that if you incinerate trash to produce electricity, you are in fact recycling, thereby raising the 75% level to 85-90% of the amount of trash that can be burned.
This plan covers a twenty-year period. It fails to place emphasis on reduction and recycling and instead goes straight to incineration. This is a typical, boring, back-end thinkers' plan. It has the giant waste industry hovering over it like vultures, until the politicians can ram it down our throats and make it law, only to pounce and tear away at the life of people until there is nothing left but a wasteland of ash monofills.
Industry wants to put new incinerators in Sauget, Illinois. That sacrifice zone is a toxic time bomb already; so, what difference does it make if you add to it? The toxification of St. Clair County.
St. Clair County is is historic. Cahokia Mounds, the site of an ancient Indian city with an estimated population of 100,000 plus, stretches from well into Madison County in the north and to Dupo and beyond in the south. An archaeologist's dream, it is plundered and destroyed every time someone puts in a highway or builds a factory. These people seem not to give a damn about the historic value, let alone the rights of those who lived there many years ago. They think only of themselves and the money to be made.
It's an old story, and if continued, as the gloomsayers preach, we will not be long for this earth. Who is to blame? We all are, really. Not for the actual polluting, but for letting industry and the regulatory agencies put profits before people. Once this happens, everything from birds to worms become expendable. Or worse yet, all "creatures," including humans get in the way of industry profits, causing shareholders to become angry. In turn, plant managers, forced to produce bigger profits, cut corners that inevitably endanger us all. The profit motive to produce bigger and better things, to be number one, is getting a little old. It's hard to re-educate a whole country, let alone the world, when we've had lessons drilled into our heads since before pre-school. We want things now—can't wait! To hell with the long term. "Me, me, me!" That was the battlecry for the previous administrations and it remains so today. The obvious consequence is the production of more and more stuff, and more and more factories where the "stuff" is built...then somehow we must deal with all of the toxics produced in the process.
The toxification of St. Clair County speaks to both the strengths and weaknesses of local movements. Citizens of E. Carondolet stopped Thermal Disposal Systems from siting an incinerator in their town. But TDS may just move to Sauget. As long as the waste industry can find a single community that will permit toxics to be located in it, one skirmish is only a dress rehearsal. We need to start by mobilizing our own communities. But we also need a strategy of linking toxics struggles across the country and across the globe.
Some of the information in this article thanks to reporting in the Belleville News Democrat newspaper.