By Scott Beauchamp
Photos by Nika Knight
On a map, the town of Sauget, Illinois, is in the middle of the country. But see it firsthand and it could be the edge of the world. Driving to Sauget from where I grew up in South County St. Louis, the faded industrial-orange arches of the Jefferson Barracks Bridge carry you over the patiently meandering Mississippi. The river serves as the political border between Missouri and Illinois, but it’s more than that. It’s also a cultural border. And an ecological border. Once you’re on the other side, the suburban sprawl of St. Louis – miles of hospitals, gas stations, fast food joints, half-empty malls, mega-churches, and middle-class housing tracts – abruptly transforms into a landscape more lush, more verdant. With my glasses off, the Illinois side of the Mississippi River flattens into an Impressionist jungle. There are towns here, but they’re hidden behind cheap floodplain farmland and trees swollen with the humidity of summer.
Coming into town, 255, the bypass highway that local business leaders dubbed “the road to prosperity” when they lobbied for it to be built in the late 70s, unceremoniously deposits you onto Sauget Business Boulevard. It’s a name as blank as the industrial landscape itself. Future archeologists studying the cartography of Sauget will immediately understand the spirit of the place from street names alone: Sauget Industrial Parkway, Vector Drive, Nickel Avenue, American Bottom Road. And then there’s Monsanto Avenue – a truck-crowded street falling into dilapidation, both sides rimmed by the brutal architecture of industrial plants and cinder block strip clubs. If Sauget could be said to have a heart, this is it.
Sauget is one among a cluster of depressed little towns that cling to the Illinois side of the Mississippi River across from St. Louis. The most notorious is East St. Louis, just north of Sauget. East St. Louis regularly makes “most violent cities in America” lists. In 2007 it had a higher murder rate than most other cities with reputations for violent crimes like Baltimore, New Orleans, and Detroit. In 2014 the murder rate of East St. Louis was higher than that of Honduras, then considered the most violent country in the world. The estimated population for 2014 was 26,672, a few thousand fewer people than lived in East St. Louis during the turn of the last century, when the town was a bustling industrial community. It’s almost a quarter of the population at its 1950’s peak, when East St. Louis was named an “All-American City” and produced vanguard members of American culture like Miles Davis and Ike and Tina Turner.
By the 60s deindustrialization, together with white flight and the highway bypass systems that made white flight possible, conspired to push East St. Louis into an economic and cultural free fall. Bond ratings suffered. Crime rose. Abandoned factories and plants left a hideous labyrinth of “brownfields,” areas so contaminated by industrial waste that development was impractically expensive or physically impossible. Revitalization programs were tried out: the Model Cities program, the Concentrated Employment program, Operation Breakthrough. By 1980 film director John Carpenter was using the dilapidated shell of what had once been a vibrant community to shoot scenes for his postapocalyptic thriller Escape From New York. Obviously the programs had not worked.
The story of the city south of Sauget, Cahokia, is only different in degree. Named after one of the clans of the Illini confederacy, Cahokia is much older than East St. Louis, having been founded in 1699, but reached its population peak much later in the 70s. It’s been in slow decline ever since. I drove through Cahokia recently and counted payday loan centers, but gave up somewhere in the teens. It was too depressing. Any relationship to its past as a city of moderate colonial importance had long ago been decimated by the ruthlessness of the market and the vagaries of time. Historic buildings remain: the Cahokia Courthouse (1740), Church of the Holy Family (1697), Jarrot Mansion (1810). But they seem as alien and distant as the nearby pre-Columbian mounds, built over a thousand years ago, which now share the town’s name. Floating in the miasma of a permanently depressed present, detached from its past and without much realistic hope for a vibrant future, Cahokia appears to be a town without a purpose. Like East St. Louis, Cahokia is a slow-motion trap set by historical circumstances then sprung by the economic inertia of a deindustrializing economy. People are escaping, but slowly.
East St. Louis and Cahokia are not success stories. What makes Sauget different from them is that it is, albeit not by conventional standards. Sauget is playing by different rules. That much is obvious from the sign as you enter town: SAUGET, POP: 159. No one lives here. Or at least, not many people do as compared to the cities on either side. It isn’t a town where people are born, live out their lives, and die. There are no hospitals in Sauget. The few children that live there attend school in Cahokia. Sauget isn’t really a town at all, at least not in any traditional sense of the word. It’s more useful to think of Sauget as a petri dish for deregulation and tax breaks. It wasn’t built for people, but instead to protect the dregs of capitalism.
Sauget is literally a company town. It was first incorporated in 1926 under the name “Monsanto.” Yes, that Monsanto, the multi-billion-dollar international biotech company whose corporate headquarters are located across the river in suburban St. Louis. The reasoning behind Sauget’s inception was simple: in the 1920s local governments set most environmental regulations. If you wanted as lax regulations and as low taxes as possible the best way to do that would be to create your own town, or “village” as Sauget is technically classified. The name was later changed from Monsanto to honor of the first Village President Leo Sauget, adding a thin veneer of respectability to the project. But whatever one called it; Sauget was created to be a dumping ground. “We were basically incorporated to be a sewer,” Richard A. Sauget Jr., current Village President and great-grandson of the eponymous Sauget, admitted to the Wall Street Journal.
[blocktext align=”left”]Sauget was created to be a dumping ground. “We were basically incorporated to be a sewer.”[/blocktext]For years the plant that dominated Sauget was of course the Monsanto plant, and until their ban by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1979, it was the nation’s largest producer of PCBs. Polychlorinated biphenyls are synthetic compounds once commonly used as coolants for electrical appliances, an ingredient in carbon copy paper, dielectric insulators, cutting fluids for machines, and in various other manufacturing processes. So much of what makes our industrial economy run is hidden from the view of our day-to-day lives. Like the anatomy of a person, most of its working parts are never meant to breach the derma. PCBs, from the start of their use last century until their eventual ban, worked as a sort of economic internal membrane, helping the hidden machinery of our constructed lives to function smoothly. No one had to know that it was PCBs facilitating electrical transfers in power transformers that were lighting their homes and powering their record players. No one wanted to know.
Health concerns about PCBs were raised all the way back in the 1930s, but only in the rarified setting of the Harvard School of Public Health. It would take almost 50 more years before their use would be outlawed in the United States. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “PCBs have been demonstrated to cause a variety of adverse health effects. PCBs have been shown to cause cancer in animals. PCBs have also been shown to cause a number of serious non-cancer health effects in animals, including effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, endocrine system, and other health effects. Studies in humans provide supportive evidence for potential carcinogenic and non-carcinogenic effects of PCBs.” What’s more, PCBs are in a category of nasty compounds known as “persistent organic pollutants”, which means that they don’t naturally break down in their environment. Unless they’re, say, carefully incinerated by a plasma arc or forced to decompose microbially, they’ll literally just sit there, hurting every living thing that comes into their proximity. PCB levels in Sauget have been measured at 25 million times the level acceptable for human contact.
Sauget is an environmental disaster. I came down with a splitting headache after only twenty minutes of breathing in the air of Sauget. My father, who attended college in Cahokia, remembers people calling the town “Ca-choke-ia” because of the noxious air blowing down from the north. Uncle Tupelo, the Southern Illinois band that was a precursor to Wilco, went so far as to pen a ballad to the town and its air born pollution in the song “Sauget Wind”:
“They’re poisoning the air/For personal wealth/It’s a long way to heaven/It’s a short way to hell … Industrial wind/It blows in from the west/It’ll burn out your eyes/And suck out your breath”
It isn’t only the manufacturing of PCBs that have wreaked havoc in Sauget. Since its founding, companies have been dumping massive amounts of a wide variety of toxic chemicals into the ground and water of the town. Any industrial projects in the region that has faced NIMBY, or “Not In My Backyard” opposition from residents has found a warmer welcome in Sauget. The town is currently home to a gargantuan sewage treatment plant, a zinc factory, and one of only three of the nation’s industrial wastewater treatment facilities. And this is just to name a few of the current occupants. Companies have been passing through Sauget, taking advantage of its almost nonexistent zoning and regulatory oversight, for the greater part of the twentieth century. The physical traces left by this environmental devastation have become as recognizable parts of Sauget’s identity as its small regional airport or cluster of windowless strip clubs.
To hear stories about the seven-mile-long Dead Creek that slithers through Sauget, you’d think it was something from a comic book or religious text of a long-disappeared civilization. There’s a local legend about animals that come into contact with the creek dying within twenty-four hours from chemical burns. The EPA erected a fence around the creek in 1982 to cut down on the potential for chemical burns from contact. Former Cahokia Fire Chief Hershal Riddle told the Chicago Tribune about Dead Creek giving off an eerie luminescence at night, saying, “You’d see a blue glow, like the bottom of a flame on a stove.”
The comparison to a flame is apt, since Dead Creek also has a reputation for spontaneously combusting and giving off smoke-like fumes. Among the mélange of 25 toxic chemicals the EPA has found in the area is chemical phosphorus, which burns when exposed to oxygen. It might be more accurate to not think of Dead Creek as a creek at all, but a run-off basin for atrocious and life-threatening compounds, mixed with a bit of water. While researching Dead Creek my mind continuously wandered to comparisons of the streams with sacrificial blood that ran down the steps of Aztec temples. These dangerous chemicals surging out of our own coeval cathedrals of industry and through Dead Creek is the price we’ve convinced ourselves we have to pay in order to sustain our modern economy, in order to please our contemporary gods of convenience.
Sauget is small. All told, it’s only about four square miles. Nevertheless, it contains two separate Federal superfund sites. One is along Dead Creek, where the plan is to dredge sediment, replace culverts, pump in fresh water to improve drainage, place a liner at the bottom of the creek, and cover over the site of an underground fire with fresh soil. The second site is along the banks of the Mississippi River itself, where for decades contaminated wastewater has sat in backfill lagoons and slowly leached into the river and surrounding soil. There’s no way this site can be “cleaned” in any sense. The EPA determined that the best option is just to build a “barrier wall” to protect the Mississippi and then cover over the lagoons with a “cap” of soil, concrete, and crushed rock. In other words, it’s basically a lost cause that comes with a $20 million price tag — a very expensive rug to sweep everything under.
Even when Dead Creek is finally purged and treated, and the lagoons encased in their protective carapace, it will have already been too late. Damage has been done. In 2009 locals filed a class action lawsuit against three companies responsible for dumping PCBs and other toxic materials in Sauget. Most of the plaintiffs are pushing for the companies to cover the costs of medical monitoring and treatment. That same year, three plaintiffs from California filed suit against Monsanto citing a link between PCBs and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. What makes the Californians’ suit interesting is that, as Steven Baughman Jensen, co-attorney for the plaintiffs, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “[m]ost toxic tort cases involve an allegation that a plaintiff got sick because they worked around a chemical, or they got sick as the result of some kind of release from a nearby polluter. This one is very different from those scenarios.” This is the first case ever to take on the idea of “general population” exposure to toxic materials. Sauget just happens to be a focal point from which harmful material radiates outward. Very concrete political borders allow Sauget to create hazardous waste. The detritus itself is only confined by the limitations of physical laws.
Nineteenth-century American clergyman Hosea Ballou said, “Disease is the retribution of outraged Nature.” It’s an overly general and overly heated sentiment that Ballou expresses, the power of which goes a ways in expressing our complicated relationship with, and place inside of, “Nature.” Places like Sauget exist because of us, but they’re not for us. It’s a sad irony that as we move further into the Anthropocene, the name scholars and scientists have given our current epoch of man-made climate change, so much of the byproducts of our culture are inimical to human life itself. In fact, an important aspect of engagement with the Zeitgeisty concept of the Anthropocene is white-flag fatalism: humans have conquered the biosphere, and so we’ve lost the battle for survival. We’ve won the battle against nature and in the process have destroyed our home. It’s usually presented as a fait accompli collective failure. Paul Kingsnorth, writing in the London Review of Books, peacocks the attitude, saying, “Climate change isn’t something that a small group of baddies has foisted on us…in the end, we are all implicated.”
[blocktext align=”right”]Sauget is small. All told, it’s only about four square miles. Nevertheless, it contains two separate Federal superfund sites.[/blocktext]Assuming that Kingsnorth is right and we’re to share the blame for climate change, are we all implicated equally? The negative effects of climate change certainly aren’t evenly distributed. As a 2012 World Bank report states, “No nation will be immune to the impacts of climate change. However, the distribution of impacts is likely to be inherently unequal and tilted against many of the world’s poorest regions, which have the least economic, institutional, scientific, and technical capacity to cope and adapt.” There’s also a consumption imbalance. According to ecologist Andreas Malm, “The 19 million inhabitants of New York State alone consume more energy than the 900 million inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa. The difference in energy consumption between a subsistence pastoralist in the Sahel and an average Canadian may easily be larger than 1,000-fold…” In other words, it’s a minority of the world who enjoy most of the benefits of a resource-plundering economy, the same minority that is best protected from the effects of climate change.
This imbalance plays out on a micro scale around Sauget. The few inhabitants of Sauget, mostly municipal workers, enjoy free sewer and garbage services, the benefits of splitting tax revenue between so few people. And crime is low in Sauget. The website Sperlings gives Sauget a crime ranking of 40 out of 100, slightly lower than the national average. East St. Louis has a ranking of 97. Cahokia is a more modest 55. But maybe a more accurate comparison would be all of those communities taken as whole and compared to the wealthy suburbs of West County St. Louis. According to Jonathan Kozol, in his book Savage Inequalities, East St. Louis is 98% African American, and most of its citizens get by on less than $7,500 a year. It also has one of the highest rates of childhood asthma and lead poisoning in the country. Across the river in Chesterfield, Missouri, where Monsanto recently announced plans to build a billion dollar “campus,” the median income is $96,000. The average house value is over $300,000. The residents of each community are obviously having wildly different experiences of Monsanto as a commercial enterprise.
Driving through the middle of Sauget, I got stuck at a light while a train chugged past. It was the longest train I’d ever seen, pulling the rusted hulks of grain cars out of a distant vanishing point on the horizon before disappearing slowly in the direction of St. Louis. Other drivers gave up and performed thousand-point turns to escape the wait. Maybe they knew about some track bypass that I didn’t. To my left was a field of transformers, their dull gray rising out of the earth like the vines of an invasive species. For all intents and purposes an invasive species is exactly what it was. And so was the train. And so were I and all the other drivers.
As the train passed and the barrier arms lifted, I was struck by the physical palimpsest time makes of civilizations. Civilizations had come and gone in the area around Sauget for thousands of years. Buried just below the toxic industrial waste were the ruined foundations of a Mississippian culture long vanished. Who knows what was lost under the ancient mounds. Who knows what archaeologists in some distant future will think of us after finding the buried ruins of Sauget. Who knows how many times the cycle will continue, how many shots we’ll get, or if with mistakes as dire as Sauget we’ve abdicated our claim on deserving any more chances altogether.
Scott Beauchamp is a writer living in Portland, Maine. His work has previously appeared in The Paris Review, Al Jazeera, The Atlantic, and Bookforum, among other places.
Other pieces by Scott Beauchamp can be found here.