Cementing a Deal

A giant quarry and the world's largest cement kiln are being welcomed by Ste. Genevieve County. But the operation may leave St. Louis gasping for air.

Holnam sales grew by a respectable 6 percent in the first six months of last year. Holderbank, the parent company, did even better worldwide, raking in hundreds of millions in profits from its operations in more than 60 countries in Europe, North America, South America and Asia. Most of the Holderbank billions are still under the control of the Schmidheiny family of Zurich. The company's CEO is Thomas Schmidheiny. His junior brother Stephan Schmidheiny, also an heir to the cement dynasty, has branched out in other enterprises, such as Swatch watches. In the last decade, Stephan has found an avocation in seeking to raise environmental consciousness among global industrialists. The younger Schmidheiny led the business delegation at the United Nations-sponsored Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. This led him to form what became the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a group that includes such major polluters as Dow, DuPont and Shell Oil. The purpose of the organization is to promote "eco-efficiency," a melding of capitalistic and environmental goals.

Judging by the scale of Holnam's proposed cement plant in Ste. Genevieve County, it doesn't appear that "eco-efficiency" was ever taken into consideration. Holnam has taken great strides, though, to coordinate its efforts closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for protecting inland waterways. Those efforts have already paid off. Last fall, the Corps granted Holnam permission to begin building its access road over two streambeds at the site, even though the agency has not yet consented to the construction of the facility itself. The latter application, which is now under review, includes a study of the site's natural characteristics and the potential environmental impact that the project would have on the area.

Two federal agencies, as well as environmentalists, have used the Corps' public-comment process to register their criticism of the plan. Opposition is being spearheaded by attorney Yvonne Homeyer of the Webster Groves Nature Study Society and Maxine I. Lipeles, a lawyer and director of Washington University's Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic. The Missouri Coalition for the Environment and the Sierra Club are lending their support to the cause.

Jack Geiler worries that the Holnam plant will spell big changes in the county where he was born nearly 76 years ago.
Mark Gilliland
Jack Geiler worries that the Holnam plant will spell big changes in the county where he was born nearly 76 years ago.
Jack Geiler worries that the Holnam plant will spell big changes in the county where he was born nearly 76 years ago.
Mark Gilliland
Jack Geiler worries that the Holnam plant will spell big changes in the county where he was born nearly 76 years ago.

"The big picture is, there are 4,000 acres of basically undisturbed property," Lipeles says. "I think it's the largest undisturbed piece of property on the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Cape Girardeau. It's rich habitat, and it's spectacular. People with scientific training that we've been able to speak with who have actually seen the property become poetic when they describe it. They start talking, and they're overwhelmed. What we've got is a very unique unfragmented forest. I do not know of any other unfragmented tract in eastern Missouri, outside of the Ozarks. That, in and of itself, makes it unique habitat."

John Karel, the director of Tower Grove Park, conducted scientific research on the area as part of a survey of seven counties in southeast Missouri during his postgraduate studies at the University of Missouri School of Forestry in the mid-1970s. In his public comment to the Corps, submitted last month, Karel praises the endangered site for its exceptional natural qualities. "Wolf Hollow, consisting of roughly 600 acres, is located entirely within the area that would be affected by the proposed development," writes Karel. "... During the entire study of these seven counties, including two counties fronting on the Mississippi River, we did not find any tract of privately owned land that was more impressive than Wolf Hollow, especially in its context of wild undeveloped forest land extending all the way from Isle Du Bois Creek downstream to at least Brickeys Hollow. This area of several thousand acres is remote and unspoiled, with little evidence of disturbance other than some long ago logging, and a few unimproved trails along some ridgetops. The overall integrity of the forest cover is remarkable, combined with a fascinating diversity of vegetation related to exposure, slope, soil, and geologic substrate. Wolf Hollow itself is only the choicest valley in a series of wild and scenic riverbrakes that all feed into the Mississippi River Valley. In 25 years since this study was conducted, I have had the opportunity to see and evaluate priority natural areas and features all over the state of Missouri, including during a tour of duty with the Missouri State Park system. In all those years, I have not found an area of our state that exceeds this tract in its inherent quality or natural history value." That the area has remained relatively unspoiled into the 21st century is miraculous, says Karel.

Lower, Holnam's project manager, disagrees with Karel's assessment. "The plant site is in an old quarry site," says Lower. "Much of the rest of the property has been logged over the years. It has roads on almost every ridge. I know that it's good (wildlife) habitat, but it's not the pristine area that somebody has told you it is down there. Some of it's been farmed. It's been grazed. The previous landowners used the logging for income, I presume. It's pretty country down there, but it's not undisturbed."

Holnam's permit application lists five endangered species within the range of the site, including the pallid sturgeon and bald eagle. The company's permit application says it will begin restoring the land after 10 years. But it doesn't mention how the destruction of aquatic habitat would be mitigated. Critics note that the project would destroy more than 16 acres of wetlands, most of which would be taken to build a harbor in a nearby lowland known as Lee Island. Moreover, they believe the 2,000-acre quarry will have a negative impact on eight seeps and 25 springs at the site, plus a variety of threatened flora and fauna, including neotropical migrating songbirds, such as the cerulean warbler, which are known to be on the decline. Foes of the project contend that upsetting the habitat of one species can have a domino effect on the entire ecosystem. For these reasons, among others, opponents of Holnam's plan, including the EPA, are asking the Corps to take a closer look at the proposed site and prepare a formal environmental-impact statement, or EIS.

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