Funky Town

Smokestacks, strip joints and a seriously solid tax base: Welcome to Sauget, Illinois

Indeed, Sauget boasts the four biggest polluters -- Big River Zinc, Ethyl Petroleum, Solutia and Cerro Copper Products, in that order -- in St. Clair County in terms of environmental releases, according to the nonprofit Environmental Defense, a national environmental organization founded in 1967. Toss in OxyChem (seventh), Flexsys (eighth) and Onyx Environmental Services (eleventh), and the village whose population is but a fraction of the county's total wins the pollution batting title by a landslide. Big River Zinc "is among the dirtiest facilities in the United States," Andria notes of the electrolytic zinc refinery, which Environmental Defense ranks in the top 10 percent nationally for environmental releases.

When hazardous emissions enter the southwestern Illinois air stream, the wind carries them toward Rush City, an East St. Louis neighborhood that Andria and her charges have been canvassing of late to gauge the level of heart and lung problems among residents.

"We haven't found many healthy people," Andria reports. "They almost all have something that's primarily related to air pollution. They say that everybody in Rush City dies of cancer."

Sauget mayor Rich Sauget Jr., with his village's lifeblood pumping away in the background
Jennifer Silverberg
Sauget mayor Rich Sauget Jr., with his village's lifeblood pumping away in the background

Still, Andria stops short of pinning all fault on Sauget.

"The village does not have enforcement powers as such," she points out. "That's on the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. EPA."

Does Sauget bear some responsibility for the environmental and economic challenges East St. Louis faces today? Like Andria, the city's mayor, Carl Officer, says there's plenty of blame to go around.

"I don't know if that can be laid solely on the government body," says Officer, a mortician by trade who recently won back the post he'd held back in the 1980s. "I'd be prone to say the U.S. EPA and Illinois EPA would be more responsible. My personal opinion is that most elected and appointed officials just don't grasp the full extent of those issues as pertinently as they need to. You have to rely upon EPA technicians to help you. Without state and federal regulators, their hands are tied. I do think the industries in Sauget -- just like some in my community -- they've had some problems. But I've found that most of them, when you really get down to it, would work toward trying to solve those problems."

A variety of factors have combined to force the metro east down the plank from industrial haven to dilapidation in the past half-century: freight trains and river ports giving way to interstate superhighways and ocean transport, loosened international trade and labor regulations, technical innovation and heightened environmental regulations among them. But while industry no longer teems within the borders of towns like Granite City, Alorton and, to a more dramatic extent, East St. Louis, Sauget has not as yet seen its gilded age come to an end. With their village's industrial aromas clearly discernible in the cool morning air, Sauget residents continue to face each day assured that the fragrant cloud carries a silver lining.

"It's unusual that Sauget has so much activity," observes SIUE's Theising. "It's been speculated that if those industries move out, they're going to have to clean up. So, therefore, they stay."

A straw poll of the two most currently prominent Saugets, the Riches senior and junior, reveals one glaring factor that has allowed the village to maintain a competitive advantage while its neighbors struggle: location. But to limit the explanation to geography would be perilously simplistic, as all American Bottoms communities can lay claim to that particular positive trait.

"This village has always been an industrial area. We try to keep up with their business but stay out of their business," Rich Jr. elaborates. "If a business comes in and says, 'I want to build here,' we can give them an answer real quick and stick to it. All the village board members live down the street. There's not a lot of red tape."

Sauget's father, a calm, confident man who is widely credited for having saved Touchette Regional Hospital in Centreville from closure two years ago by personally appealing to the Illinois legislature for emergency funding, points to continuity of governance, along with the village's commitment to synergistic interaction with its industrial tenants.

"The reason behind my grandfather [Leo] becoming mayor was that he was dealing with the Queenys," Sauget Sr. says, referring to Monsanto's founding family. "There was a consistency between [Leo] and Uncle Paul. Business knew they would be treated fairly, and business wanted to locate here."

And from the start, the village courted business aggressively, as evidenced by this newspaper advertisement from its pioneer days, back when town and company alike were still called Monsanto:

"Monsanto, incorporated as such on August 14, 1926, is a typical industrial center, comprising not only factories, but a subdivision of small homes for employees. Covering 1.65 square miles, Monsanto is ideally situated. It is governed by a President and six Trustees, men who are eager to make the district attractive to industries. Being self-governing, its tax rates are low and there are no burdensome 'nuisance' taxes."

Most of the industrial boomtowns made similar claims around the time of the First World War, but none of them have been able to sustain them in spirit and practice the way Sauget has. For its doggedness, Sauget's tax coffers have been consistently rewarded like no place else. Sauget collected $3.21 million in property-tax revenue in 2002, the vast majority coming from its industrial tenants. By comparison, neighboring Cahokia took in $1.2 million, East St. Louis $1.1 million and Centreville $351,000, according to Dina Thurlow, tax extension supervisor for St. Clair County. Throughout the halcyon days of environmental deregulation that lasted well into the latter quarter of the twentieth century, such affluence -- Sauget ranks among the state of Illinois' richest municipalities in terms of annual tax base per capita -- permitted the village to enjoy an existence as a virtually nettle-free utopia, whose citizens are showered with free cable, trash pickup and sewer services.

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