Metro-East News

Toxic residue at Pruitt-Igoe site fuels Illinois leaders’ call for do-over on NGA site pick

Artist’s conception of National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency headquarters in St. Louis.
Artist’s conception of National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency headquarters in St. Louis.

As recently as six months ago, the footprint of the proposed National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency site in North St. Louis consisted of nearly all the 57 acres that comprise the forested remnants of the notorious Pruitt-Igoe housing complex.

But two weeks ago, without explanation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — which is overseeing site plans for NGA’s western headquarters — dropped the Pruitt-Igoe site from its Final Environmental Impact Statement. The FEIS is the nearly 500-page document that guided NGA Director Robert Cardillo’s preliminary decision on March 31 to pick the 99-acre North St. Louis site over a competing 182-acre site in St. Clair County, next to Scott Air Force Base.

Now St. Clair County and Illinois leaders think they know why Pruitt-Igoe was dropped from the plan: because of potentially toxic contamination left over from a secret chemical testing program the U.S. Army conducted during the height of the Cold War in predominantly black St. Louis neighborhoods.

News of potentially dangerous contamination at the Pruitt-Igoe property, whose location would form the NGA site’s southern boundary, has added fresh fuel to Illinois’ leaders call for Cardillo to reconsider his decision and to locate the $1.6 billion NGA facility— and its 3,100 jobs —25 miles east in St. Clair County. Cardillo is scheduled to issue his final decision on May 2.

Mark Kern, the St. Clair County Board chairman, has already taken the Corps of Engineers to task for a series of geographical errors that riddle the Environmental Impact Statement — St. Clair County, Ill., for instance, is confused with St. Clair County, Mo. and St. Clair County, Mich.

The location of a chemically toxic Pruitt-Igoe site next to the proposed NGA West only reinforces the need for NGA to re-consider its plans to build in North St. Louis, according to Kern.

“Given their error-laden report, we are not surprised the Corps of Engineers left out any mention of this likely environmental contamination on or next to their favorite site,” Kern said in a written statement.

Given their error-laden report, we are not surprised the Corps of Engineers left out any mention of this likely environmental contamination on or next to their favorite site.

Mark Kern, St. Clair County Board chairman

U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, whose district includes Scott, also slammed the Corps’ report and NGA’s decision to locate NGA West next to a contaminated site.

"Only NGA can explain whether these contamination concerns factored into their thought process,” Bost said in a written statement issued Friday. “The one thing I know is that as more and more dubious issues come to light, NGA's justification for their decision is getting shakier by the day. The officials who chose the North St. Louis site need to take a good, hard look at this without dismissing the valid concerns being raised on our side of the river.”

Dave Berczek, an NGA spokesman, said in an interview Friday that the Corps of Engineers had known of contamination issues at the Pruitt-Igoe site. But Berczek said he did not know if that was the reason Pruitt-Igoe was dropped from the plan for the St. Louis location.

Berczek said he did not know what plans the city of St. Louis might have for developing or cleaning up the former housing complex, which at the time of its demolition in 1973 was a 33-building eyesore that came to symbolize inner city decay and crime.

Berczek said he was not sure if potentially dangerous contamination at the Pruitt-Igoe site could affect the final decision-making on NGA West.

“I don’t have an answer for that,” Berczek said. “I don’t know enough about what studies have been done and what they’ve revealed, what the exposure hazard is.”

I don’t know enough about what studies have been done and what they’ve revealed, what the exposure hazard is.

Dave Berczek, spokesman, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

St. Louis officials were not immediately available for comment.

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.”

Cardillo chose the North St. Louis site at least partly on the basis of NGA’s power to work as an engine of urban renewal, even though his decision seemed to violate a 40-year trend of federal intelligence agencies being moved away from urban areas and located in rural settings, preferably at or near military installations.

The NGA, a major federal spy agency that makes maps and other data tools for the U.S. military and other intelligence agencies based on satellite imagery, needs to move from its current home at the old St. Louis Arsenal, just south of downtown St. Louis. The nearly 190-year-old arsenal no longer can contain the rapidly growing agency, which also needs greater security and modern infrastructure such air-conditioning and data lines.

NGA plans to begin construction of the NGA West headquarters in mid-2017 and finish the 800,000-square-foot facility by 2021.

Disclosures about toxins at the Pruitt-Igoe site are hardly new.

Missouri State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, who represents the North St. Louis neighborhood that includes Pruitt-Igoe, has since since last year been a vocal critic of efforts to bring NGA West to North St. Louis because of the contamination issue.

In a recent letter to political leaders, Chappelle-Nadal noted that in the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. government “used citizens of St. Louis as subjects for experimental weapons testing.”

This classified operation “allegedly meant to test defensive weapons for use against Russians, exposed St. Louis residents to radioactive particulates, zinc cadmium (used in chemical weapons) and a strain of anthrax,” she wrote. “The reason this area was chosen by the federal government is directly related to the type of housing stock Pruitt-Igoe represented as it was very similar in layout to some Russian cities at the time.”

Chappelle-Nadal ended her letter with a warning: “If this site is chosen, it would be the moral obligation of our federally elected officials to see to it future employees are protected from any risk of becoming contaminated.”

The national news media has also publicized the Army’s secret weapons program, whose records remain classified and unavailable to the public.

In October 2012, CBS News broadcast a story about how in the mid-1950s and mid-1960s, the Army used motorized blowers in low-income, predominately black neighborhoods to test the dispersal rates of a potentially dangerous compound.

“Local officials were told at the time that the government was testing a smoke screen that could shield St. Louis from aerial observation in case the Russians attacked,” according to the CBS story. “But in 1994, the government said the tests were part of a biological weapons program and St. Louis was chosen because it bore some resemblance to Russian cities that the U.S. might attack. The material being sprayed was zinc cadmium sulfide, a fine fluorescent powder.”

In recent years, the law firm of Brown & Crouppen, in St. Louis, has solicited clients who might have suffered ill health health effects from exposure to zinc cadmium sulfide. Adverse effects include lung cancer, prostate cancer, birth defects, liver and kidney damage, anemia and osteoporosis.

Mike Fitzgerald: 618-239-2533, @MikeFitz3000

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