Environmentalists lose appeal of landfill near ancient burial site


By Jim Suhr -- Associated Press

MADISON, Ill. (AP) - An independent pollution control agency has rejected environmentalists' claims that a planned landfill could desecrate possible burial grounds near the ruins of a once-thriving prehistoric city.

The Illinois Sierra Club and American Bottom Conservancy failed to show that Madison's approval process for a landfill near the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site was ''fundamentally unfair,'' the Illinois Pollution Control Board ruled Dec. 6.

The St. Louis suburb, which approved the landfill in February, would get roughly $1 million a year in fees from Houston-based Waste Management Inc., the nation's largest garbage hauler.

Opponents on Dec. 7 said they were weighing whether to challenge the matter further.

''A municipality in search of revenue is going to choose revenue over any cultural or natural resources in the area. That's what we see in so many of our cases,'' said Bruce Morrison, an attorney with Great Rivers Environmental Law Center, which pressed the lawsuit. ''So here, the money from the trash won out over the wetlands and the Native American cultural and historic sites.''

The Dec. 6 setback was ''extremely disappointing,'' American Bottom Conservancy President Kathy Andria said.

''What does it say about us as a people when we value a place to dump our garbage more than an irreplaceable World Heritage Site, a place that's sacred to Native Americans?'' she said.

Environmentalists say the expanded site would be within 2,100 feet of the Cahokia Mounds site and close to Horseshoe Lake State Park. During a 2005 archaeological survey, a skull was found near the proposed landfill site. State officials have said the skull is probably American Indian, but further analysis was needed.

Waste Management, which also owns the Milam landfill in nearby Fairmont City, has said there's no evidence the remains were of an American Indian and that the company met all siting criteria in Madison.

Bill Plunkett, a spokesman for the company, called the pollution board's decision ''the right one'' and ''supported by the evidence.''

Messages left Dec. 7 with John Papa, Madison's attorney, were not immediately returned. Papa has said that the city followed appropriate steps to consider the landfill ''and make a reasoned judgment on it.''

Waste Management wants to build a new landfill on land it owns in Madison after the existing landfill closes, perhaps in six years. The new site still would require approval from the Army Corps of Engineers and the state Environmental Protection Agency.

Believed to have been inhabited from 700 to 1400 A.D., Cahokia was among the most complex, sophisticated societies of prehistoric North America. Its enduring collection of mounds served as ceremonial sites, residences and tombs for Cahokia's leaders and servants, researchers say.

At its peak around 1100 to 1200, the city covered nearly six square miles and had as many as 20,000 inhabitants. By 1400, the site was abandoned and remained uninhabited until Illini Indians moved into the area around 1650.

The prehistoric city originally had 120 mounds, and the locations of 109 have been recorded. The state historic site includes about 70 of the mounds, ranging in height from about 5 to 100 feet. Many others have been altered or destroyed by modern farming and urban sprawl.

A United Nations agency in 1982 designated Cahokia as a World Heritage Site, joining the likes of the Great Wall of China, Egypt's pyramids, the Taj Mahal, the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty.