Invasion of the Swiss

Proposed cement plant in Ste. Genevieve would be foreign to our lungs

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How humiliating is this?

Missouri is about to be invaded by Switzerland.

You know the Swiss: the most civilized, peaceful citizens of the world. The ones whose homeland is the envy of all for its breathtaking mountains and panoramas, its glaciers, its lush countryside, its quaint towns with their open-air festivals, its shops with the world's finest watches, its legendary chocolates and cheeses.

And now, of course, its cement.


Yes, it turns out that the Swiss are quite the makers of cement, at least when it can be made in other people's countryside. In places, say, like Missouri.

The largest supplier of American cement is a Swiss-owned company called Holnam, which operates 12 plants in the U.S. and sells 13 percent of the cement used in this country. It already has a plant in Missouri, north of St. Louis in the town of Clarksville.

But now the company is planning a real invasion. If Holnam has its way, Missouri will be the proud home of the largest cement plant in North America (and perhaps the world) just a whiff south of St. Louis in Ste. Genevieve County [C.D. Stelzer, "Cementing a Deal," RFT, Jan. 17]. It would be a $600 million project.

How proud should that make us?

Well, St. Louisans would have the distinction of participating in Holnam's operation, inasmuch as we are assured by government experts and environmentalists that the plant's emissions will be filling nostrils in the Gateway City like fondue prepared tableside. By the company's own admission, the plant would release 20 hazardous airborne pollutants, and that's the positive spin on things.

The negative side? Oh, something about the plant's churning out more than 7,000 tons of ozone-munching nitrogen oxide, which is said to be considered a serious risk by the state Department of Natural Resources when it's at 250 tons annually. The EPA is also on record as opposing the plant (although Lord knows what W's EPA might decide to think).

We in Missouri also would have the joy of knowing that 4,000 acres of our pristine countryside (dare we call it "Swiss-like?) would be ravaged. The site of the proposed plant is described as a continuous tract of "wetlands, caves, large river, streams, hollows, ravines and glades" by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which strongly opposed the plant in testifying to the Army Corps of Engineers.

All this opposition is from the government, not even the environmentalists who so often are battling public officials and private polluters at this stage of the game. Still, suffice it to say that stopping the project is a top priority of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, the Sierra Club, the Webster Groves Nature Study Society and other groups.

On the other hand, the folks in Ste. Genevieve County government seem squarely on the company's side, thanks to the promise of more than 200 jobs, a $10 million payroll (the jobs must pay well) and more than $50 million in payments to the county over the next couple of decades. "I see it as a windfall," one official told us.

Speaking of windfalls, another of the rich ironies of the story is that Missouri would be providing low-interest industrial-revenue-bond financing to Holnam, which just happens to be owned by a giant Swiss bank. You've heard of Swiss banks' "helping" certain businessmen with their "offshore" banking needs, so perhaps it's only fair that our state protect a monster multinational from the rigors of the financial marketplace.

(God forbid that some giant corporation build its own plant with nothing but its own money and actually pay its full share of whatever property taxes are due. I know: What do I think this is, a capitalist country or something?)

Indeed, it would be quite a marriage between this tiny little town in the country and its gigantic corporate suitor. I hate to spoil a nice romance, but someone needs to tell our good neighbors in Ste. Genevieve that Holnam only loves them for their limestone.

One of the most amazing aspects of this story is how something so huge could have proceeded so far with so little notice. State Rep. Joan Bray (D-University City), an opponent of the project, told me she happened to be at a bed-and-breakfast near the proposed site last weekend and was told by several residents that they had been shocked to learn of it just recently. Yet the "public comment" portion of the Corps of Engineers' review is now closed.

I was struck by a "name withheld" letter to the RFT from Ste. Genevieve that was submitted in response to the cover story on the Holnam project:

"We don't need outsiders expressing their views: This company will raise the valuation of our county and will benefit a lot of people. We lost our Grandpa's store, and it is rumored that Value City did not come in because of the adverse opinions of some people. Well, now we have no store and have to go out of town to buy a lot of things."

I'd say anyone who ingests the plant's exhausts would not be an "outsider." But, in any case, can't you just picture some high-powered corporate executive or lawyer selling this wonderful project with the promise of that Value City coming to town after all?

It just doesn't strike me as something the Swiss would do.

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