Funky Town

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

But then a drop of dioxin touched off a chain reaction of environmental litigation that nags the village and its heavier industries to this day.

In 1987 a St. Clair County jury awarded $16.25 million in punitive damages to 65 plaintiffs, all residents of Sturgeon, Missouri, who claimed to have suffered ill health effects in the wake of a 1979 train wreck that spilled 22,000 gallons of Monsanto-produced wood-preservatives that contained a thimbleful of the carcinogen dioxin. Though the verdict was later reversed on appeal, it marked the end of the longest jury trial in U.S. history and placed a big fat target on the back of Sauget and its peculiarly impressive collection of long-tenured polluters.

The sleeping giant known as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had awakened and, one by one, the EPA began slapping the plants on Highway 3 with lawsuits and fines, with settlements often exceeding the million-dollar mark. Everyone's hands were dirty. The zenith came in January 1999 when the federal government filed a lawsuit demanding that Paul Sauget, the village and several of its industrial heavy hitters clean up and fiscally atone for toxic contaminants that had wound up in Dead Creek. Paul Sauget was implicated for his alleged role in the operation of three landfill sites his father owned near the Mississippi River tributary, described by former state attorney general Neil Hartigan in a 1993 Belleville News-Democrat story as "the most toxic waste site in Illinois."

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

By the time court proceedings began in U.S. District Court in East St. Louis this past October, all the big dogs, including Monsanto and Solutia, lay down, admitting liability and pledging to pay any cleanup costs associated with the contamination of Dead Creek. Shortly after the trial opened, Judge G. Patrick Murphy found the village of Sauget liable under national Superfund laws for pollution in Dead Creek, noting that the village operated a sewer system that discharged into the creek at a time when hazardous substances were dumped there by companies who'd already admitted culpability in the case.

Paul Sauget refused to succumb, alleging that it was his late father, Leo, not he, who bore responsibility for operation of Sauget Company landfills. The government disagreed, alleging that Paul was his father's right-hand man at the dump sites.

"It's a pretty bad case, obviously, because we wouldn't be involved if it wasn't," says Karen Torrent, the U.S. Department of Justice's lead attorney in the matter. "Historically, if you look at general industrial activities in the area, that reflects the nature of the hazards in the area. I don't believe at the time that there were restrictions. I don't think the state, at the time, had a lot of teeth that would prevent activities that occurred there."

Eventually the feds cut a deal with Paul Sauget that essentially passes the buck to insurance companies Sauget claims fully covered his and his father's private interests. The insurance companies claim otherwise, says Sauget attorney Bernie Ysursa; that conflict forms the crux of an imminent round of legal wrangling in St. Clair County Court that will determine whether the settlement goes through.

Couple the ex-mayor's legal entanglements with Solutia's recent bankruptcy filing -- which, according to company spokesman Alan Faust, is not expected to have an impact on operations at the Sauget plant in the near future -- and the village sits at a precarious crossroads like none before it, one that threatens the very industry-town tenets upon which it was founded.

Rich Sauget Jr. is all too aware of the feeling of immunity lost on the eastern side of Highway 3, and he becomes noticeably more relaxed as he pulls his black sport utility vehicle over the crest of Curtiss Steinberg Road en route to Downtown St. Louis Airport. The airfield, which deals mainly in corporate and charter flights, is the third most trafficked in the St. Louis region, and fast gaining on Spirit of St. Louis airport in Chesterfield, according to airport director Bob McDaniel.

Founded in 1929 as Curtiss-Steinberg Airport, the facility has undergone several name changes over the years, settling on Downtown St. Louis Airport in 1999 to emphasize its proximity to the Gateway City. Its major tenants include Midcoast Aviation and a helicopter manufacturer whose chopper was responsible for recording the aerial footage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

To the west of the airstrip lies Sauget Business Park, described by Sauget Jr. as "the future of the village." At present, the 21-and-a-half-acre swath of prairie, annexed by the village in 1995 and still somewhat pastoral, contains the Grizzlies' stadium, a Volvo truck manufacturer and a handful of light-industrial and warehouse tenants.

"You can drive through communities ten times our size and they aren't doing as much business," says a visibly excited Sauget.

The notion of staking a town's commercial future on an endeavor as blasé as a business park seems relatively uninspiring. But considering Sauget's track record and the promotional firepower assembled behind the endeavor, the mayor's excitement becomes more understandable.

Perhaps the greatest cog in this machine is ArchView Economic Development Corporation, a fledgling nonprofit founded by Rich Sauget Sr. Its stated mission: to build a strong economic and social environment in Sauget, Cahokia, Centreville, Alorton and Dupo.

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