St. Clair County lost out to North St. Louis in the preliminary contest for the $1.75 billion National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency on the theory that NGA could be used as an engine to promote urban renewal in a blighted inner-city neighborhood.
As envisioned by St. Louis leaders and NGA Director Robert Cardillo, the aim of locating the top-secret intelligence agency and its 3,100 jobs on a 99-acre parcel in North St. Louis is to spark the surrounding neighborhood’s rejuvenation, allowing it to serve as a magnet for new businesses, housing and highly educated “millennials” eager to partake of the opportunities of urban life.
But the federal government’s efforts to revitalize North St. Louis could end up shattering against a hard, steep wall: the lack of a plan for cleaning up the 33 acres comprising the heavily wooded remains of the notorious Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, a 33-building high-rise development the federal government demolished in 1973.
No one can say how much it would cost to clean up the federally owned Pruitt-Igoe site, which would form NGA’s southern boundary. That’s because no soil testing or other analysis has been conducted to determine what needs to be cleaned up at the site, how much money such a cleanup would cost and who would pay for it.
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Rubble from the Pruitt-Igoe demolition has sat undisturbed at the site for more than four decades. Meanwhile, it remains unclear if toxic contaminants would be found at the site as a result of a secret Army chemical weapons testing program conducted on Pruitt-Igoe residents in the 1950s and 1960s.
In in a brief supporting the city’s site, St. Louis officials boasted that the Pruitt-Igoe property “has the potential to transform into a vibrant center for the community with new urban streets, mixed-use buildings and community services. As part of a connected network of multi-modal transportation, the street design will support a mix of uses such as retail, restaurants, service businesses, and offices. Storefronts are envisioned to line the streets providing a mix of amenities and places for social interaction where pedestrian safety is emphasized.”
Megan Betts, the spokeswoman for a group resisting NGA’s efforts to build in North St. Louis — a move that could result in the forced eviction of some longtime residents of the area — said she did not believe the NGA West construction could move forward until the Pruitt-Igoe site is cleaned up.
“They have to address it,” Betts said. “To me it’s about the testing. Has the proper testing been done? If not, when it’s done, what are the results? There’s a school next-door. How deep is it? How far does it go? The residents that have been in that area, the kids that go to school next-door — is there a potential they could’ve been affected all these years? What are the health effects for the community?”
They have to address it... What are the health effects for the community?
Megan Betts, opponent of St. Louis site for NGA headquarters
The NGA is a top-secret Defense Department intelligence agency that uses satellite imagery to make maps and other digital tools for federal military and intelligence operations, as well as civilian agencies. NGA’s western headquarters needs to move from its current home at the old St. Louis Arsenal, just south of downtown St. Louis, because it needs room to expand and modern infrastructure, such as heating and cooling technology.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whose April 1 site-selection study guided Cardillo’s preliminary decision on the location of NGA West, contends the Pruitt-Igoe site did not have to be tested because it was not in the final footprint of the proposed NGA West site.
It did not need to be tested because the Pruitt-Igoe site had already been tested by a contractor hired by the St. Louis Development Corporation, the public entity charged with developing North St. Louis, according to the Corps of Engineers statement.
“The St. Louis Development Corporation conducted a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment for both the NGA Site and the Pruitt-Igoe site through a local consulting firm in October of 2015,” wrote David Kolarik, a Corps of Engineers spokesman, in an April 22 email. “The firm did not find an indication of a potential recognized environmental contaminant associated with radioactive or nuclear-related contamination on the former Pruitt-Igoe site.”
But Otis Williams, the development corporation’s executive director, said Pruitt-Igoe was never tested.
“The Phase I (testing) completed in 2015 did not include the Pruitt-Igoe site,” Williams wrote in an email. “The geography only included the future NGA site.”
The cost of cleaning up the Pruitt-Igoe site could be staggering. In 1994, the Defense Mapping Agency — NGA’s predecessor — considered the relocation of a satellite facility onto the Pruitt-Igoe site after that facility had been damaged during the 1994 Mississippi River flood.
The report, a copy of which was obtained by the News-Democrat, called for the rejection of the federally-owned Pruitt-Igoe site because of the excessive cost of a cleanup.
The site “was studied to evaluate soil conditions, utility capacities, and development constraints, and to estimate site development costs,” according to the report’s authors. “A separate Phase I environmental site assessment was conducted to evaluate site contamination and potential for environmental clean up prior to construction of the new facility.... These studies showed that development for DMA (Defense Mapping Agency) use would incur substantial above-standard costs for removal of abandoned utilities, require rework of unconsolidated fill and rubble on the site, and necessitate conducting a Phase II environmental site assessment.”
Consequently, the NGA moved the satellite facility and its 900 employees to Arnold, Mo.
Kolarik, in a written statement in response to questions submitted by the News-Democrat, wrote that the Pruitt-Igoe site has received a certificate of completion from the state of Missouri’s Brownfields/Voluntary Cleanup program in October 2015.
“Any development on Pruitt-Igoe will be required to abide by the provisions as stated in the Environmental and Restrictive Covenants which were recorded on the chain of title on 9/23/15,” he wrote. “Any future remediation will be informed by the future development, and any remediation costs which arise due to that development will be addressed by the purchaser of the Pruitt-Igoe site.”
Any future remediation will be informed by the future development, and any remediation costs which arise due to that development will be addressed by the purchaser of the Pruitt-Igoe site.
David Kolarik, spokesman, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Kolarik said the cleanup of Pruitt-Igoe will not add to the cost of building NGA West.
“As the NGA West site excludes the Pruitt-Igoe site, the cleanup of Pruitt-Igoe will not add any cost to NGA West, nor will it cause any delays to the construction of NGA West,” he wrote.
The 1994 Defense Mapping Agency report, along with other documents and errors found in the Corps of Engineers’ site-selection study, will form the backbone of St. Clair County’s and the state of Illinois’ multi-prong campaign to reverse Cardillo’s preliminary decision to build NGA West in North St. Louis and to build it instead on a 182-acre site nextdoor to Scott Air Force Base.
The campaign to reverse Cardillo’s decision will kick into high gear after Monday, the final day that public comments may be submitted regarding site choice.
St. Clair County officials have already indicated they will seek a do-over based on geographical errors found in the Corps of Engineers report — St. Clair County, Ill. had been confused with St. Clair County, Mo. and St. Clair County, Mich.— and because of a privately commissioned report that found the St. Clair County site enjoys big advantages over North St. Louis in terms of site security and safety.
U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who is coordinating much of the effort on the Illinois side to reverse NGA’s decision, described the decision to build NGA West in North St. Louis as a “gamble.”
“As chairman of the subcommittee that will provide the funding for the construction of this project, I want to ensure the $1.7 billion in tax dollars for this project are an investment and not a gamble,” Kirk wrote in a guest editorial for the News-Democrat.
As chairman of the subcommittee that will provide the funding for the construction of this project, I want to ensure the $1.7 billion in tax dollars for this project are an investment and not a gamble... Not only does NGA’s proposal continue to throw good money after bad, it puts their roughly 3,100 employees in danger.
U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois
“The proposed site in St. Louis is located squarely within the controversial Northside Regeneration Project,” Kirk wrote. “This project has been granted more than $400 million in tax breaks by the City of St. Louis and has been a pet project of the White House since 2014, which gave it privileged access to additional federal tax dollars. Despite the various tax subsidies and grants, the project to date has failed to provide significant benefit for the residents of St. Louis.
He added: “Not only does NGA’s proposal continue to throw good money after bad, it puts their roughly 3,100 employees in danger.”
Kirk said the St. Louis site doesn’t have the 500-foot, anti-terrorism security buffer that St. Louis supporters say it does.
“The St. Louis proposal does not account for vehicle access points,” he wrote. “A vehicle access point is the location a vehicle is screened for explosives or other weapons within the initial fence line. A recent security study concluded that the vehicle access points to the St. Louis site could reduce the true standoff distance from 500 feet to 50 feet, and consequently the St. Louis site would require a waiver from the Department of Defense to proceed with inadequate anti-terrorism standards.”