Abandoned Wagner Electric Factory Building

As I reported last week, Wagner Electric – once a mainstay of Wellston residents’ employment – closed its doors in 1981. What happened next is one of the most tragic stories in Wellston history.

“When Wagner Electric abandoned Wellston,” writes U.M.-St. Louis historian Andrew Hurley in his outstanding 1997 Environmental History article, “Fiasco at Wagner Electric: Environmental Justice and Urban Geography in St. Louis,” “few residents knew that its property was contaminated with toxic waste. Only after the company transferred title to the property to St. Louis County did inspectors discover that the company had left behind more than four thousand gallons of oil containing PCBs,” with soil concentrations “ranging up to almost 100,000 parts per million” (“levels above 50 parts per million [are] a threat to human health”). It turned out that Wagner’s Wellston plant “had a long history of handling toxic substances, including the contaminated oil that was used as an insulator and coolant in the transformers manufactured by the company.” Hurley concludes:

Although the firm used other hazardous substances elsewhere in the plant – asbestos in the brake division and cyanide in the plating department – it was the spillage and careless disposal of PCB-laden oil that would come to haunt the county. . . . Particularly heavy concentrations were found on the banks of the River des Peres. Inside the plant, PCB contamination was discovered in building floors, within concrete pillars, and in a variety of cans, buckets, and tanks scattered around the premises.

But wait . . . it gets worse.

Rather than remediation immediately getting underway, the Wagner facility sat empty, as St. Louis County, Wagner Electric, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency argued – in lawsuits and countersuits – about who was responsible for the cleanup and just how far the cleanup needed to go. In an excellent overview of this “wrangling,” Hurley describes the County’s inability to pay for remediation, Wagner’s insistence that it had no responsibility for the mess, and the EPA’s “flexible regulatory approach.” Ultimately, “a 1987 settlement with Wagner Electric’s parent company, Cooper Industries, guaranteed enough money to fund a partial cleanup of the site,” says Hurley, but “redevelopment proceeded at an excruciatingly slow pace.” “The completion of the partial cleanup did not rekindle interest among prospective clients,” he writes, and “the partially-cleaned site was still not in marketable condition.” Indeed, after the partial cleanup had been completed, “large quantities of asbestos” were discovered, and other contamination problems were found. In short, the Wagner plant was indeed the site of a “fiasco.”

What happened at Wagner is, unfortunately, not an isolated case. So prevalent are deserted, contaminated sites (most of them industrial) that a word has been coined to describe them. A “brownfield,” as defined by the EPA, is “real property where redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental contamination.” Brownfield sites, says Ashley Williams, author of a 2009 Kansas State University master’s thesis, “A Case Study of the Brownfield Redevelopment in Wellston, Missouri,” “remain blighted areas acting as urban ‘eyesores.’”

As Hurley notes, brownfields tend to predominate in poor, minority neighborhoods. “Inner-city brownfield properties,” says Hurley, “have imposed a double burden upon surrounding communities.” Not only are residents at physical risk due to the contaminants in these brownfields, but “potential investors have shied away from properties that contain even the hint of contamination,” thus “denying jobs and revenue to distressed communities.”

Such was the case with the Wagner Electric factory. This site – along with the nearby ABEX Foundry site – was, as Williams notes, “deserted in the early 1980s and . . . left to deteriorate for nearly twenty years.” Those who traveled on the MetroLink in years past likely saw the “bombed-out” Wagner facility, easily visible from the Wellston Station. As St. Louis County official Wayne Wiedemann noted, the PCB contamination had a “dramatic effect on [our] ability to market the property.” And according to Michael Clark of Clark Properties (the developer involved in efforts to reclaim the site), “the [old Wagner] site has been a black eye on the community for years. When you have a property that looks that bad, it’s difficult to attract companies that are coming in and looking at St. Louis.”

Inside Abandoned Wagner Electric Factory Building

But this story may have a happy ending – for another chapter of the story unfolded in the last decade: that of brownfield redevelopment. This type of urban infill project focuses, as Williams says, on “the recycling of land” and thus “breaks from traditional models in that it does not promote the development of vacant, open land or agricultural land” (also known as greenfields). For a good overview of the current thinking on brownfield redevelopment, consult Williams’s literature review.

According to Williams, much has been accomplished due to the brownfield redevelopment of the Wagner and ABEX sites. New facilities that have been created include the Plymouth Industrial Park (formerly the Cornerstore Industrial Park), the Wellston Technology Park (on the ABEX site), a small business incubator known as the St. Louis Enterprise Center, and a “state-of-the-art” workforce training center, the Metropolitan Education and Training Center (also known as the MET Center). Providing hands-on, trade-based training and “comprehensive” career development services, the MET Center serves unemployed and underemployed area residents and helps provide a “bridge not only to employment but also to further college coursework.” Liz Connolly, planner for the East-West Gateway Council of Governments and a community fellow at U.M.-St. Louis’s Public Policy Research Center, also points to the St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy, which was built on part of the Wagner site.

Where Hurley was distressed in 1997 to see the sad state of the Wagner brownfield site, both Connolly and Williams found that brownfield redevelopment was finally taking hold in positive ways. Writing in 2004, Connolly described Wellston as “a poster child for brownfields redevelopment,” noting that “Wellston was profiled as an ‘environmental justice success story’ in a 2002 EPA report.” And from her 2009 vantage point, Williams was so encouraged by what has happened to Wellston’s abandoned factory sites that she calls Wellston “a successful example” of brownfield redevelopment.

I’d be interested to hear from readers who have been to Wellston and seen this redevelopment first hand. What does Wagner look like today?

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1 Comment on Wagner Electric and Brownfield Redevelopment

  1. I learned so much from yhis article.