Collision Course

Gateway International Raceway is speeding to expand parking. But environmentalists are waving a red flag.

Despite regular flooding, there has been little cooperation among the local drainage districts set up to deal with the problem, and only a handful of cities on the East Side have stormwater ordinances. Moreover, recent attempts to establish a regional stormwater agency have failed repeatedly in the Illinois Legislature. Opposition to the concept of regional flood control comes from upland farmers, homebuilders and real-estate agents, who see it as an unnecessary expense. This leaves the Metro East Sanitary District alone to deal with maintaining the canals and ditches that drain 66,000 acres of flood-prone land stretching from Hartford to Dupo. The problem spills down from one political jurisdiction to the next, but the district can't stem the tide because its taxing authority extends only to Illinois Route 157, near the foot of the bluffs.

The absence of regulatory unity can be catastrophic when large volumes of water are involved. In 1995, floodwaters caused about 1,000 Caseyville residents to flee their homes. Fairmount Park racetrack was shut down for five days, and part of Interstate 64 closed. Crews hastily built a levee to stop Interstate 55-70 from going under. Neighborhoods in East St. Louis were inundated. Two years ago, stormwaters mixed with raw sewage forced hundreds of residents of the John DeShields public-housing complex in East St. Louis to evacuate.

The dilemma is hardly new. By the early 20th century, leaders in government and industry recognized the need for flood control and formed the East Side Sanitary and Levee District. Tens of millions of dollars were spent on levees and canals that never really solved the problem. These past flood-control measures depended heavily on pumping stations, floodgates, stream channelization and other feats of engineering. The Corps' current policy takes a decidedly different tack by relying on the East Side's remaining wetlands to retain floodwaters. The ecological approach has the support of the Metro East Stormwater Coordinating Committee, an ad hoc group of federal, state and local officials. But SWIDA's unqualified endorsement of the raceway expansion appears to be somewhat at odds with the Corps' overall program, in which $40 million has been spent over the past decade to remove debris from the East Side drainage system.

Lansdowne Ditch in the American Bottoms. According to environmentalist Kathy Andria, "There have been billions of dollars spent on flood disaster, and they're trying to ask for some wetlands to be destroyed for one race a year. It makes absolutely no sense."
Jennifer Silverberg
Lansdowne Ditch in the American Bottoms. According to environmentalist Kathy Andria, "There have been billions of dollars spent on flood disaster, and they're trying to ask for some wetlands to be destroyed for one race a year. It makes absolutely no sense."

The raceway is taking a more cautious public stance. "It's very complicated," says Brian Ulione, the general manager. "But we're working with the Corps of Engineers and have done everything that they have requested of us and will continue to do that. Right now we're talking about .7 acres of wetlands in a revised permit. The original permit application called for 11 acres." The road that the raceway wants to build on the south end of the track would accommodate shuttle buses carrying MetroLink riders from the new light-rail station on Exchange Avenue in East St. Louis, says Ulione. The raceway is exploring other options, too, he says, including using the former National Stockyards site for parking.

In 1998, SWIDA attempted to solve the raceway's parking problem by using eminent domain to take nearby property owned by National City Environmental Inc., parent company of St. Louis Auto Shredder. The legality of that effort is now being weighed by the Illinois Supreme Court. A ruling is expected later this year.

One alternative, backed by both environmentalists and the Corps, would be to turn the former Hunter Packing Co. site into a raceway parking lot. This would require the demolition of about a dozen abandoned industrial buildings and improvement of First Street in the Goose Hill neighborhood of East St. Louis. The plan would still require the construction of an access road across St. Louis Auto Shredder's property. The Corps has received a brownfield grant of more than $150,000 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to study the site.

Just how the development issue will eventually pan out remains as murky as the waters of the Cahokia Canal and Lansdowne Ditch.

The ditch stretches eastward, toward Indian Lake, a wetland where the original streambed still meanders. Here, an old golf course, recently acquired as mitigation land by the Illinois Department of Transportation, is returning to its natural state. The flat expanse looks like an African savannah. Nearby, along the low levee that borders the ditch, grass grows high. Almost everything is green along the levee, except for white specks of Queen Anne's lace and the brilliance of a great egret as it lands in the branch of a dead tree. In the background, a motel sign rises next to Collinsville Road, and the Gateway Arch can be seen in the distance. A turtle pops its head out of the canal waters, displaying bright-orange markings on its face. They are the same color as the flowering trumpet vine, the same color a red-winged blackbird flashes in flight. And for a moment, the world is irrepressibly in sync.

Public comments are being accepted through July 25 on Gateway International Raceway's revised permit. Send commment to:
Susan Horneman
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
1222 Spruce St.
St. Louis, MO 63103-2833

To view the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' public notice concerning the raceway expansion, click below.

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