The Low Road

Hazelwood officials cast their lot with the developer of a controversial project in the flood-prone Missouri Bottoms. Their gamble is tearing the North County community apart.

Pat Jackson, the City Council member whose ward includes part of the affected area, doesn't see any problem in the way the city and the developer have gone about pursuing the project, either. It is her opinion that the council members are more knowledgeable about the development and therefore should make the final decision. Jackson says that giving voters the final say in the decision "seems like an unwise move to me, unless you're going to have the people become experts on TIF and development and yadda, yadda, yadda, which are confusing issues, anyway."

However, when Jackson is asked whether it makes sense to build such a huge project in an environmentally sensitive floodplain, she passes the buck: "Not being one of the experts like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or the Metropolitan Sewer District and all those kinds of people, I really have to defer to their superior knowledge of those kinds of issues and concerns. If they felt that it would do more harm than good, if they felt that it would make a bad situation worse, than they would require of Tristar whatever measures (that) would offset any problems that they create. Not being an expert on those kinds of things. I really have to defer to their judgment."

An old-timer who lives around these parts tells a story about a team of mules having to be hitched up to pull his car out of the muck. Others say that during the spring thaw, the gumbo has the habit of snatching boots and never giving them back. They say that truckloads of concrete rubble can be dumped on these bottoms, and it will disappear without a trace. The summer sun, which seems to burn hotter along this flat expanse, has baked the same soil into a hardened mass. It is cracking in places, creating long, deep fissures in the ground. A fist-sized clod of this dried silt feels as if it weighs five pounds. When dropped from waist height, it doesn't crumble, it thuds. The hardpan is deceiving, though, for water is never far removed from the floodplain. It hangs in the air like a wet sheet on a clothesline even in the driest of seasons, and it saturates the ground, rising to the surface to create wetlands alongside the roadways, where egrets and herons feed.

Jennifer Silverberg
The Earth City headquarters of Tristar and Thomas Construction
Jennifer Silverberg
The Earth City headquarters of Tristar and Thomas Construction

This section of the Missouri River floodplain extends from St. Stanislaus County Park east and then south to Bridgeton, following the semicircular bluff line. As a result of its proximity to the river, the area is naturally swampy. But the farmers hereabouts would likely contend otherwise. They have planted much of the land in soybeans or corn; the latter now stands more than 6 feet tall. The stalks are rooted in loess that is 80-100 feet deep. Those depths represent the estimated distance between the surface and bedrock.

Two floods in 1993 and 1995 inundated parts of the Missouri Bottoms, and approximately 150 acres of Tristar's proposed 450-acre development could be affected by future high waters. In addition, field tests conducted for Tristar show groundwater present within 3 feet of the surface. A map prepared by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources colors the Missouri Bottoms yellow, signifying that the area will probably liquefy if an earthquake occurs. By all accounts, the floodplain is geologically unstable.

In a Tristar memo sent to a Hazelwood city official last August, Chapman expressed concern about the soil composition: "We have wholesale deep soil problems in the form of naturally consolidated soils that will not withstand the construction of improvements (i.e. buildings) without substantial settlement. Therefore, remediation of the site on what appears to be a wholesale basis is going to be required.... A preliminary estimate of the costs to do this is several million dollars." For portions of the area to be elevated from the floodplain, 2-4 feet of fill dirt will have to be dug from a nearby hill and transferred to the lowlands.

This would seem good enough reason to think twice about building a business park at this location. But the developer and Hazelwood officials contend that it has all been done before, and, indeed, it has. Upstream, the floodplain is being rampantly developed in Chesterfield, and the Earth City business park has been filled to near-capacity. Two levees — Monarch and Howard Bend — are being enlarged to protect these areas. As a result, floodwaters will be forced elsewhere.

The floodplain is like a shriveling sponge. Recent deluges have been brought on not so much by increases in annual precipitation as by decreases in ground to soak it up. Water volumes haven't surpassed the levels of the past but have still caused more damage because levees, channelization and other human encroachments on the floodplain have kept the water from spreading out over the entire river valley.

Across the state, hundreds of thousands of acres of Missouri River wetlands have vanished in the last century. Only about 5,800 acres of forest remain along the river from Kansas City to St. Louis, according to federal estimates.

As a part of its plan to develop the Missouri Bottoms, Tristar is proposing the additional destruction of more than 28 acres of wetlands, some of it forested. To mitigate this destruction, Tristar has promised the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that it will set aside 20 acres of existing wetlands at the site and allow another 50 acres of adjacent land to remain undisturbed. The plan is opposed by the Audubon Society, the Missouri Coalition for the Environment and the Sierra Club, which has called for a public hearing on the issue.

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