Those big tents are no longer needed at Belleville cleanup site but work still continues

Big, white tents removed

The big, white tents that covered workers at an environmental cleanup site in downtown Belleville have been removed. Work will continue this year and Belleville may open a park at the site.
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The big, white tents that covered workers at an environmental cleanup site in downtown Belleville have been removed. Work will continue this year and Belleville may open a park at the site.

Big, white tents at an Ameren environmental cleanup site have become part of downtown Belleville’s skyline over the last few years but now they are no longer needed.

Work at the site off Sixth and West Main streets, however, will continue this year and Ameren anticipates it won’t get final clearance from environmental regulators until next spring, which would be more than a year later than originally expected.

After Ameren leaves the site, which is mostly owned by Belleville, the city may open a small park on the land but those plans have not been finalized.

The tents were used to prevent contaminants from entering the air while contractors excavated dirt polluted by coal tar leaking from storage containers. The coal tar is a byproduct from the late 1800s and early 1900s when the former Belleville Gas Light and Coke Co. factory off Sixth Street along Richland Creek produced gas from coal. This gas was used to light the city’s street lights.

The fuel was stored in concrete containers and coal tar that accumulated at the bottom leaked into the ground. Also, before Ameren began the cleanup in 2015, the factory building was razed.

Ameren is paying for the cleanup, which is expected to cost at least $36 million, according to Ameren spokesman Brian Bretsch. That estimate is up from the previous one of $35 million. The utility company assumed the liability for the cleanup when it purchased Illinois Power Co. in 2004.

The white tents were 48 feet high and covered the locations where crews dug up to depths of nearly 45 feet to get the polluted soil.

But the remediation work that still needs to be done can be completed without the tents, Bretsch said. He said a foam suppression will be used instead of the tents.

One of the places that still needs to be cleaned is under a portion of Washington Street that has been closed to traffic during the cleanup.

Also, the air monitoring system that has been in use will still be in place. So far, the monitoring equipment has not detected any vapors that would affect the public, Bretsch said.

Project delays

Rainy weather in the last few years was a contributing factor for causing delays in the project because heavy equipment could not be used when the site was muddy, Bretsch said.

Also, the project lasted longer than scheduled because rerouting Richland Creek took more time than expected.

The creek bed had to be moved as part of the cleanup.

“We will put the creek back to where it originally was,” Bretsch said.

The original creek location is to the west of the temporary channel.

Belleville’s plans

The city of Belleville owns most of the site that Ameren is cleaning up and city leaders have discussed opening a small park on the land. Those plans have not been finalized except for one aspect: what to do with the “wedge” intersection of South Sixth, Washington and West Main streets?

The Washington Street spur to West Main will be removed and the city will install a right-turn lane on West Main for drivers to access South Sixth and Washington streets, Mayor Mark Eckert said.

Belleville wants to remove the wedge intersection to improve traffic safety.

“We’re going to close that leg off for safety,” Eckert said. “That intersection had way too many accidents.”

The Washington Street spur to West Main has been closed during the Ameren cleanup and it will not be reopened.

‘The Big Red Shoe’

The wedge intersection also is home to “The Big Red Shoe” sculpture on display.

The sculpture by Milwaukee artist Marina Lee was commissioned by the Art on the Square committee and installed in 2011 as a tribute to nationally known radio personality Delilah Rene, who had a red, stiletto heel logo for her production company. Rene had sponsored a “Paint the Town” contest and Belleville was selected as a winner in 2010 when volunteers painted 65 buildings along Main Street between 17th and Oak streets.

Today, the sculpture needs a new coat of paint and the city plans to repair it.

City officials have not decided where the red shoe sculpture will be displayed because one proposal being considered calls the park to feature columns salvaged from the former St. Clair County Courthouse that was torn down in 1972.

If the columns are installed at the proposed park along West Main Street as a way to welcome people to downtown, then the red shoe would be moved somewhere else.

A conceptual drawing of the site shows a small parking lot on the south end of the park and a short walking trail connecting the lot and the columns. A series of six plaques possibly would be installed along the trail and they would include information about Belleville’s history, Eckert said.

“We haven’t made a final determination on any of this,” Eckert said.

Since the plans are in the preliminary stages, the city does not have a cost estimate for opening a park on the former home of the Belleville Gas Light and Coke Co. factory.

Eckert said City Attorney Garrett Hoerner has had talks with Ameren about whether the company can help pay for the park.

Ameren is responsible for rehabilitating the site after the coal tar cleanup is completed, Eckert said.

“We’re asking them for some consideration as we develop our plans,” he said. “That’s all being discussed now.”

Mike Koziatek joined the Belleville News-Democrat in 1998 as an assistant editor and is now a reporter covering the Belleville area. He graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee and grew up in St. Louis.