Environmental Justice Case Study:

East St. Louis, Illinois

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Key Actors









The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development describes East St. Louis as “the most distressed small city in America” (Kozol, 7). Clearly a case of environmental injustice, the city is 98 percent black and has one of the highest rates of child asthma in the country. In his book Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol uncovers a disproportionate burden of lead poisoning, educational disparities, unemployment, and toxic exposure among the residents of East St. Louis. A deteriorating infrastructure and financial vulnerability further weakens the fight against chemical industries within East St. Louis.

Along the southern edge of East St. Louis, chemical plants such as Monsanto, Big River Zinc, Cerro Copper, and one of the largest hazardous waste incineration companies in the U.S., American Bottom Sewage Plant and Trade Waste Incineration, line impoverished neighborhoods. Nearly a third of the residents live on less than $7,500 a year (Kozol, 7).

Hazardous Waste Sites in East St. Louis, Illinois

 *Red circles indicate the number of national priority sites as mandated by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). These sites pose the most significant potential threat to human health due to their known or suspected toxicity and potential for human exposure.

(Taken from ESLARP Data)

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East St. Louis, located in west-Central Illinois across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri, has suffered tremendous economic and environmental setbacks. A booming town at the turn of the century, East St. Louis profited greatly from centrally located rail freight facilities that distributed locally produced chemicals. However, East St. Louis began to crumble when chemical corporations created small, incorporated villages, such as Sauget and Cahokia, protected from city taxing. Without an industrial tax base, middle class residents took flight (Shaw).

Once a healthy community of 80,000 residents, East St. Louis quickly deteriorated socioeconomically and scattered a surplus of vacant and poorly maintained lots throughout the city. According to Kenneth Reardon, a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, “nearly 40 percent of the city’s land was either vacant or unattended and 30 percent of its building stock was abandoned” by 1990 (1). Presently, the 38,000 remaining residents suffer from poor educational systems, increased health risks, unemployment, and poverty (Bell, A1). The East St. Louis public school district is currently ranked third to last in the state of Illinois.

Without tax revenues, East St. Louis began to close municipal agencies beginning in the early 1970s. According to Kozol, garbage collection halted between 1987 and 1992, city employees were laid off, and police and fire department suffered funding shortages. Besides the aforementioned examples of environmental injustice, the community’s financial burdens have added to resident vulnerability as well.

Unemployment Rates in East St. Louis

(Taken from ESLARP Data)

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Key Actors

Monsanto Chemical


8201 Idaho Ave.

St. Louis, MO 63111


A powerful force in the chemical industry, Monsanto has emerged as one of the three largest companies in the U.S and is “one of only four companies to be listed among the top ten U.S. chemical companies in every decade since the 1940s” (Tokar, 1). In the 1996 fiscal year, Monsanto grossed more than $6 billion in profits with products such as Nutrasweet and Round-Up.

Monsanto began producing polychlorinated Biphenyls or PCBs in the early 1930s until its deadly effects were discovered forty years later. In the late 1940s, Monsanto began manufacturing herbicide 2,4,5-T. An internal memo made public in 1987 indicated that large amounts of dioxin, a by-product of PCBs and a known carcinogen, were disposed in the East St. Louis area. According to the EPA’s 1995 Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), Monsanto ranked fifth among U.S. corporations in toxic releases with 37 million pounds of toxic chemicals discharged annually (Tokar, 6).

In a 1990 EPA memorandum, Dr. Cate Jenkins of the EPA’s Regulatory Development Branch declared that “Monsanto has in fact submitted false information to EPA which directly resulted in weakened regulations under RCRA [Resources Conservation and Recovery Act]…” (Tokar, 4). In his article “Monsanto: A Checkered History,” Brian Tokar furthers these allegations with charges of faulty comparative health studies and efforts to submit prepared samples to the EPA with no evidence of dioxin contamination (4). Currently, Monsanto’s compliance with the EPA remains in violation.

On May 31, 2000, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered Monsanto to remove sediments contaminated with high levels of PCBs and dioxin from Dead Creek. The EPA placed Dead Creek on a National Priority List (NPL) because hazardous waste jeopardized state and federally protected endangered species. Eventually feeding into the Mississippi River, EPA officials also worried that the migration of hazardous substances from Dead Creek would affect commercial fishing. (See EPA News Release). According to Kozol, the chemical discharges found in Death Creek concerned residents as early as 1991, at the time of his book’s publication. The creek that “smokes by day and glows on moonless nights has gained some notoriety in recent years for instances of spontaneous combustion” when children create the necessary friction from riding bikes across the creek bed (17).

Pfizer Chemical


In 1997, Fortune ranked Pfizer the world's most admired pharmaceutical company, and Forbes magazine named Pfizer "Company of the Year." Established 150 years ago, Pfizer is one of the world's leading pharmaceutical companies, accredited for its success in discovering and manufacturing inventive drugs for humans and animals. Pfizer Inc. is a research-based company that serves people around the world in more than 150 countries. The company has a threefold focus: health care, animal health and consumer health care. (See Pfizer web site).

The EPA’s mandated Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), a database which provides information to the public about releases of toxic chemicals from manufacturing facilities into the environment, provides a listing of hazardous waste sites. Those sites with the highest “score” receive greatest priority and are place on the National Priority List (NPL). In the East St. Louis community, two hazardous waste sites have been identified for the NPL. One site contains waste from Pfizer (http://www.eslarp.uiuc.edu/la/LA338-S98/kfeld/hazard.html ).

Pfizer NPL Site on Lynch Avenue in East St. Louis, Illinois

Interestingly enough, a recent Pfizer publication of the Environment, Health, and Safety Report (1999) indicates little accountability for inadequate waste management practices in East St. Louis:

In the past, however, our use of certain U.S. waste disposers led to some instances of soil and groundwater contamination at their facilities. Under the U.S. law commonly knows as “Superfund,” Pfizer and other industrial companies are responsible for the cost to clean up this contamination, even though someone else caused it. We have agreed to pay approximately 87 percent of our estimated Superfund costs. (1999)

If anything, Pfizer’s reputation is far from perfect. Between 1996 and 1998, the EPA fined Pfizer nearly $900,000 for violations involving the Clean Water Act, the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, and the Conservation and Recovery Act (See Environment, Health, & Safety Report).

Big River Zinc


2401 Mississippi Avenue

Sauget, Illinois 62201

(800) 274-4002

A subsidiary of Korea Zinc Co., Ltd., Big River Zinc produces and distributes zinc metal in Sauget, Illinois. Just one of the many towns developed to escape property taxes in East St. Louis, Big River Zinc has a replacement value in excess of $200 million. Big River sells approximately 92,000 tons of zinc per year as well as 130,000 tons of commercial grade sulfuric acid and 1,000 tons of cadmium oxide per year. Whereas sulfuric acid is used in the manufacturing of fertilizers, detergents, and pharmaceutical products, cadmium oxide can be found in plastics or porcelain enamel. In 1996, Big River initiated an Improvement Program to expand capacity to 117,000 ton of zinc metal per year.

According to Big River Zinc’s web site, the plant’s water treatment system collects, purifies, and neutralizes contaminated water before it leaves the plant. Additionally, Big River professes to safe and environmentally friendly disposal practices of hazardous wastes in accordance with state and federal laws. However, on December 3, 1997, EPA’s Region 5 filed a complaint against Big River Zinc alleging that the corporation had failed to notify the Emergency Response Commission and the Chicago Local Emergency Planning Committee of hazardous waste releases. Furthermore, the EPA alleged that Big River Zinc violated numerous industry restrictions:

·        Failure to properly store certain hazardous wastes

·        Failure to submit the required notification of treatment technology in use at a facility, as well as, failure to keep required records regarding such treatment technology

·        Failure to satisfy certain requirements of a generator storing hazardous waste 90 days or less without a permit” as well as other violations

·        Failure to keep on-site copies of notification forms for hazardous waste sites

·        Failure to send copies of two hazardous waste sites to the Illinois EPA

In late 1998, EPA Region V proposed a penalty of $75,150.

(Taken from EPA Region V Enforcement Action Database).

Cerro Copper

P.O. Box 66800

St. Louis, MO 63166-6800

(618) 337-6000


Headquartered in Sauget, Illinois, Cerro Copper is one of the largest manufacturers of domestic copper tubes—a product necessary for plumbing, heating, and air conditioning. More than 200 million pounds of copper tube is needed annually for the plumbing market. In a process that recycles and refines copper scrap to produce copper tube, Cerro uses a fully integrated mill that combines copper refining and tube manufacturing. However, Cerro Copper uses a toxic smelting process to manufacture copper tubes (Cerro Copper web site).

Environmental Protection Agency


On December 5, 1997, the EPA Regional Administrator approved Illinois’ plan to reduce organic compound emissions in the Chicago and East St. Louis areas by 15%. Through reductions in gasoline vapor emissions and controls on industrial sources, emissions have fallen by 38 tons per day in East St. Louis. Three days earlier, EPA officials attended a meeting with local citizens. According to the EPA, the information gathered will be used to evaluate environmental concerns.

Ø      For further information about EPA’s interactions with East St. Louis, see: http://yosemite.epa.gov/r5/r5ard.nsf/288168c99d31f2a6862566080048959e/662e769d796d1c418625660800493aee?OpenDocument

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

611 E. Lorado Taft Drive

Champaign, IL 61820


Faculty and students from the Department of Urban & Regional Planning, the Department of Landscape Architecture, and the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have joined East St. Louis neighborhood groups to address the immediate and long-term needs of East St. Louis residents. Since its inception in 1990, ESLARP has played a crucial role in attempts at neighborhood revitalization. Using various university and social service resources to address economic and environmental problems, ESLARP and community members have found success in East St. Louis.

ESLARP collaborates with the following neighborhood organizations:

·        Alta Sita Neighboring Revitalization

ü      Cleared trash-filled lots

ü      Demolished deteriorating structures

ü      Improved East St. Louis Park

·        Emerson Park Development Corporation

ü      Removed illegally dumped trash

ü      Designed and built playgrounds

ü      Repaired homes

ü      Established community gardens

ü      Built new single-family homes

ü      Urban planning

ü      Planning for new light rail station as an extension of the Metro

·        Landsdowne Improvement Association

ü      Cleared trash from vacant lots

ü      Rebuilt a deteriorated park

ü      Researched urban real estate practices

ü      Provided development ideas for Jackie Joyner Kersee Sports Complex

·        Edgemont Citizens for Crime Prevention and Community Development

ü      Completed stabilization plan

ü      Outreach activities to expand membership

ü      Completed property condition survey

ü      Organized city’s first homeowner information fair for local residents

·        Olivette Park Neighborhood Association

ü      Created a revitalization plan

ü      Improved  finances and appearance of Katherine Dunham Dynamic Museum

ü      Organized summer youth employment

ü      Cleared abandoned structures

ü      Established community gardens

·        East St. Louis Community Action Network

ü      Grassroots organizing

ü      ESLARP has provided this coalition with research, fundraising, and legal assistance

ü      Currently seeking to guarantee enforcement of city’s sanitation code

East St. Louis Neighborhood Technical Assistance Center (NTAC)

            NTAC seeks to provide organizational, planning, and design assistance to residents and neighborhood organizations especially in the areas of community organizing, neighborhood planning, building and urban design, grant writing, and non-profit management (ESLARP site).


The demographics of East St. Louis have changed drastically since the 1960s. Not only has the population split in half, but the African-American population has skyrocketed from 45 percent to 98.1 percent in the 1990 U.S. census. The average income for an East St. Louis family went from $15,927 in 1959 to $12,627 in 1989, whereas national averages totaled $18,426 in 1959 and more than $30,000 in 1989. Today, the median household income stands at $14,644, a figure nearly half the state average. Additionally, property collection tax is one-fourth what it was in 1970 (Tokar).                                                     (Taken from U.S. Census)

As of 1990, about 40 percent of the population lived below the poverty line (Bell, A1). Unemployment nears 30 percent. The northern end of East St. Louis, in zip code 62204, is the worst of 124 zip codes in St. Louis, St. Clair, and Madison Counties. Half of the residents live in poverty, 75 percent live on welfare and two out of five children are born to a teenager (Peterson, A1).

(Taken from U.S. Census)

Racial Demographics of East St. Louis, Illinois

(U.S. Census)

Educational Attainment for Residents of East St. Louis Illinois 25 Years and Older

(U.S. Census)

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·        Community Revitalization: Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo and President Bill Clinton sponsored a $3 million Empowerment Zone grant to four of St. Louis area’s poorest communities, including East St. Louis. In July of 1999, Clinton and Cuomo met with local officials to support “a roadmap for community revitalization that local governments, businesses, and community groups will follow to stimulate economic growth and job creation” (HUD Press Release, 7/6/99)

·        Casino Development: In an effort to revitalize the economic turmoil of East St. Louis, Governor Jim Edgar granted the city one of four riverboat gambling licenses in 1994. The “Casino Queen” employs 1,200 and pays approximately $10 million in taxes toward city improvements. However, according to an article in The Economist, the funds have only provided minor improvements—such as traffic lights, consistent waste pick-up for residents, and new radios for police dispatchers (27).

·        Federal Involvement: Considering the budget constraints of East St. Louis, the federal government has declared full management of the city’s public housing and has offered support to the police department as well (The Economist, 27).

·        State Involvement: Condemning East St. Louis for poor local management, Governor Jim Edgar began to monitor the city’s finances and, in 1994, took full control of the public schools (The Economist, 27). 

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Ø      The Urban Extension Minority Access Program was initiated in 1987 when State Representative Younge requested the assistance of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for revitalization efforts within the East St. Louis area. The first endeavor was the School of Architecture’s East St. Louis Revitalization Project. This effort included riverfront development, street lighting, industrial and railroad development, and stormwater retention (ESLARP site).

Check out some of ESLARP’s ongoing projects: http://www.eslarp.uiuc.edu/overview/pdf/2.pdf

Ø      In 1998, the Neighborhood Based Family Housing Program piloted the first “Blitz Build” and actively engaged hundreds of volunteers in an effort to provide affordable housing to local families. Within a span of three weeks, two new homes were built. These special homes were eventually sold to families at no profit and financed with affordable loans. In collaboration with other neighborhood organizations and church groups, the Neighborhood Based Family Housing Program hope to build 25 homes over the next five years.

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Ø      Continue further development of neighborhood organizations and grassroots mobilization within East St. Louis

Ø      Educate community residents about the accessible technical support offered through NTAC

Ø      Encourage local participation in neighborhood organizations and non-profits through increased visibility of community efforts.

Ø      Continue the efforts of the Neighborhood-Based Family Housing Program with local, state, and federal funds directed towards mixed-income housing

Ø      Continue the political and funding process involved in an extension of the St. Louis Metro

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Emerson Park Development Corporation

Vicky Forby, Executive Director

(618) 874-0777

Alta Sita Neighbors

Dr. Helen Hudlin, President

(618) 875-1030

East St. Louis Community Action Network (ESCLAN)

Kathy Andria, Environment Chair

(618) 271-9605

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Region 5

77 West Jackson Boulevard

Chicago, IL 60604

(312) 353-2000

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Ø      EPA News Release: “EPA Orders Cleanup of Sauget Area 1 Dead Creek Site; Work at Sauget Area 2 Site Q Recently Completed”


Ø      Excerpts from Jonothan Kozol’s Savage Inequalitie:s


Ø    History of East St. Louis:


Ø    Boycott Monsanto:


Ø      EPA Region V Enforcement Action Database has further details about the administrative complaint against Big River Zinc Corp: http://www.epa.gov/region5/orc/enfactions99/law-mm.htm#bigriver110998

Ø      Illinois Public Interest Research Group (PIRG): offers useful environmental resources for state-wide as well as local concerns http://pirg.org/illinoispirg/

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Bell, Kim. “Rebuilding East St. Louis.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 8 July 1999.

“EPA Orders Cleanup of Sauget Area 1 Dead Creek Site…” EPA Environmental News Release.

1 June 2000. No. 00-OPA103. http://www.epa.gov/region5/news00/00opa103.htm

Glaeser, Edward. “Help Poor People, Not Poor Places.” Wall Street Journal. 12 August 1999.

Jinker-Lloyd, Amy. “Gambling on Economic Development.” The American City &Country. July


Kotlowitz, Alex. “Urban Wastelands: In some small cities, poverty, crime top metropolitan

levels…” Wall Street Journal. 22 June 1988.

Kozol, Jonathan. Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools. HarperCollins Publishers,

New York. 1991: 7-39.

Peterson, Deborah. “Mothers try to help children beat the odds; living in a danger zone.” St.

Louis Post-Dispatch. 14 December 1997.

“People, Places, and Partnerships on Community Based Environmental Protection.” United

States Environmental Protection Agency. EPA document #100R97003: pp. 22, 35.

Reardon, Kenneth. “Down on the River.” East St. Louis Action Research Project. University of

Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. http://www.eslarp.uiuc.edu

Shaw, Wendy. “A Tale of Two Cities: The Best of Times, the Worst of Times. Inequality in St.

Louis’ Metro-East.” Department of Geography. Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.

Stelzer, C.D. “Dead End Street.” Riverfront Times (St. Louis). 10 August 1994.


Tokar, Brian. “Monsanto: A Checkered History.” The Economist. September 1998.

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