Sacred Garbage?

Native Americans trash plans to expand a sprawling Illinois landfill.

Jan 16, 2008 at 4:00 am

Kathy Andria steers her white Geo sedan down the gravel road that skirts the Milam Landfill in south Madison County. She pulls up next to a couple who are hunched behind a camera aimed at the swampy marsh near the sprawling dump. "Birds," the man says, explaining what they're photographing, "Canada geese, mostly." Andria cranes her neck, hoping to catch a glimpse of the wildlife, but only sees a flock of crows circling the landfill's towering heap of trash. She shakes her head.

Andria, the president of the Illinois-based environmental group American Bottom Conservancy, has spent nearly two years battling Milam's expansion, which will replace the existing dump (just north of I-55/70, bordering Madison and Fairmont City). Having recently topped 170 feet in height and dwarfing the largest of the neighboring Cahokia Mounds, the current fill is expected to reach capacity in five years. If approved, the expansion will occupy an additional 119 acres northeast of Milam and accommodate St. Louis' daily glut of 3,000 tons of trash for the next 25 years.

But Andria and others say expanding the landfill is bad public policy because it will reside in the middle of a floodplain adjacent to Horseshoe Lake State Park. The dump's proximity to the mounds and the fact that archaeologists unearthed ancient Indian remains in this place two years ago are sore spots for environmental activists.

"I realize we need landfills," says Andria, "but they should be suitably sited. I think there are many areas that are not adjacent to a state park and next to the most culturally significant site in the state that's sacred ground for Indians. And it certainly should not be in a floodplain, for God's sake."

Despite Andria's efforts, Waste Management, which has operated Milam since 1984, has obtained nearly every permit necessary to begin construction. Approval has already been granted by Madison County, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and, as of last month, the Illinois Pollution Control Board. The project currently faces what is essentially its final hurdle: a federal study being prepared by the Army Corps of Engineers. The study, due out in several months, will assess the new fill's impact on the area's wetlands.

Lisa Disbrow, a spokeswoman for Waste Management, says she's confident the company will pass muster. "We believe that we will be issued the permit," she says.

Prep work is now under way on the proposed site and construction will begin immediately after the final go-ahead is granted.

Disbrow notes that Waste Management is taking steps to soften the blow to the surrounding wetlands, including the installation of a high-tech lining that will prevent pollutants from seeping into the ground. Asked why the company chose a location fraught with controversy, Disbrow says, "With the infrastructure we have at current facility, it makes more sense to expand our current operations than to move and look for a different location."

Keith McMullen, a biologist at the Corps of Engineers, says his agency's standards, as mandated by the Clean Water Act, are stringent. For the past two years, the Corps has teamed up with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and more than 100 other agencies to determine what affect the dump will have on the surrounding environment.

"You name it, we're involved with it," McMullen says. "Archaeological, floodplain, aesthetics — the whole thing. You can't just put a checkmark next to the box. You have to get the facts and get them documented."

McMullen says that his office has been swamped with thousands of comments from the public opposing the dump. "It's just one of those things. Anytime there's something that people don't want, they'll look for stuff to get the public's eye, to get the public thinking there's something major-league wrong," he says. "But they don't have facts. It's based on emotion. It's 'Not in my back yard.'"

Nothing has generated as much controversy as the December 2005 discovery of an ancient Native American skull and pottery shards on farmland just beyond the northern border of the proposed expansion. Given the location's proximity to the Cahokia Mounds (the pair are separated by about two miles), the find was a startling revelation. The mounds are the remnants of what is believed to be the oldest Native American settlement in North America. They are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, alongside global landmarks such as the pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China. Because many of the mounds were used as tombs, some fear the skull found near the landfill is part of a larger burial site.

Archaeologists from the Kansas City-based consulting firm Burns & McDonnell were hired by Waste Management to comb the area of the proposed expansion for evidence of any other remains. They ultimately concluded that the skull was an isolated find. The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA), the state-run organization responsible for managing such discoveries, agreed.

"We spent over 2,000 man-hours going over this property," Disbrow says. "We were very careful to check for remains. There's no evidence to suggest that there's anything else there."

That's little comfort to Ruben Aguirre, a member of the Tongva tribe who works with local tribes to protect Native-American heritage sites. "It's our ancestors that are there," Aguirre says. "People look at it like maybe we don't exist anymore. If you're not dressed in feathers and regalia, they figure there's not native people left here."

John Kelly, an anthropology professor at Washington University, says he reviewed reports on the skull prepared by Burns & McDonnell and was disappointed by what he read. "It doesn't appear to be very well done," Kelly says. "They probably did what they were required to do by law, but it's a question of going beyond the law and respecting the wishes of the tribes. Even if it's just an isolated find like a human skull, from [the Native American] perspective, regardless whether it is part of a person or a whole person, it's still important."

Dawn Cobb, a skeletal remains coordinator for the IHPA who worked on the Milam remains, says there's nothing her agency can do. "What they're doing isn't anything illegal or immoral. They're doing business and they're working within the law."

McMullen agrees that the archaeological findings aren't enough to hold up the project. "We don't want to ignore it. We want tribes to be aware that because of the religious or ceremonial value we want to be sensitive," he says. "But there's not proof that [the skull] wasn't drug in by a coyote or by floodwaters. There's lot of digging or research needed to prove or disprove any theory."

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