Smelterville

Crystal City forges one hell of a deal.

Mention the town of Crystal City and invariably you'll hear the name Bill Bradley. The NBA Hall of Famer turned U.S. senator from New Jersey grew up here, just a half-hour drive south of St. Louis. Bradley's father worked as a banker and his mother taught Sunday school. It was in Crystal City that Bradley first fell in love with the game of basketball — scoring an improbable 45 points against Owensville High School on a wintry night in 1959. It is also the place where, as Bradley once put it, "the world of possibility and hope all began."

Little wonder then that the lanky senator returned to his roots on a rainy day in September 1999 to announce his candidacy for the 2000 presidential race. Standing outside the Crystal City High School gymnasium, Bradley began his campaign speech by touching on a topic that's now sparked a lightning rod of discord in his hometown.

"Less than a mile from where I'm standing, near the banks of the Mississippi River, there once stood the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company," Bradley told the throngs of well-wishers who braved the rain showers to see him. "It was there for 100 years. In its heyday, it employed 4,000 people and turned out thousands of tons of glass a year. It seemed that just about everybody in town worked for what we called PPG. We didn't grow corn or wheat here in Crystal City — we made glass."

Bradley ended his trip down memory lane saying, "Today I want to be as clear as that glass about who I am and why I am running for president of the United States."

These days all that remains of the PPG glass factory, which provided Crystal City its namesake, is an empty, 250-acre field just east of the city's historic downtown. Heavily polluted from nearly a century of industrial use, the property looks not unlike the present-day Superfund site of Times Beach, Missouri. Trees and tall grass grow inside a chainlink fence encircling the property. Over the years the site has become something of a nature reserve, attracting hawks, rabbits and other wildlife.

When Jack Ginnever and his girlfriend Sheryl Boss bought their home — a 1920s mansion that once served as Crystal City's hospital — they were under the impression the PPG land that bordered their yard was too contaminated for development. "We heard talk of making it a park," recalls Ginnever, a soft-spoken IT professional who moved to Crystal City in 2004. "Worst-case scenario was that they'd build a prison on the property, but we didn't think that was likely."

Then last August word came that Crystal City officials were in closed-door negotiations to develop a $1 billion iron-ore smelter on the PPG land. The word "smelter" alone was enough to alarm many of the city's 4,200 residents. Four miles north of town is the city of Herculaneum, home to the notorious lead smelter that belongs to the Doe Run Company. In 2002 the state required Doe Run to purchase 160 homes in Herculaneum after health officials found that 56 percent of the children living within a quarter mile of the smelter had elevated blood lead levels.

Crystal City residents feared the same results, and soon news of the Crystal City smelter dominated headlines in the Jefferson County weeklies, the Leader and the News Democrat Journal. The town's city council meetings that usually play host to a half-dozen onlookers now drew hundreds of angry, sign-toting citizens demanding that the project be abandoned. By September 5 the protests grew so intense that Mayor Tom Schilly was forced to schedule a public meeting in the high school auditorium.

So it was that some 400 people crammed into the school where eight years earlier Bill Bradley announced his presidential intentions. But if the mayor thought the meeting would allay resident's fears, he was quickly disappointed, as audience members began to pepper him with worrisome questions about environmental hazards. "What will the long-term effects be from pollution?" inquired one resident. "What about noise?" asked another. "Will the plant operate 24 hours a day?"

A confidentiality agreement inked between the city and the smelter's St. Louis developer, Jim Kennedy, prohibited the mayor from providing any specific details concerning pollution. And Kennedy, who was also in attendance that night, deferred most all environmental inquiries to Leanne Tippet Mosby, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Mosby's attempts to downplay health concerns — by stressing that iron-ore smelting produces fewer toxins than lead — fell flat after she admitted knowing nothing about the size or scope of the proposed smelter.

"I don't care what type of lipstick you put on this pig, this is still a dirty, nasty thing," grouses Ginnever, who, like many in attendance, left that September meeting with more questions than answers. Chief among them was whether their hometown hero, Bill Bradley, may also be involved in the project.

Shortly after dropping out of the presidential contest, Bradley sold the family home on Taylor Avenue in downtown Crystal City. But the former New York Knicks star still owns a 350-acre tract of land adjacent to the PPG property. E-mails obtained through Sunshine Law requests indicate Bradley is considering the sale of his property, known as Hug's Farm, to Jim Kennedy. The addition of Bradley's land could more than double the size of the proposed smelter.

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