Last Updated on March 29, 2022 by Dave Farquhar
From 1924 to 1979, National Lead Co operated a titanium dioxide plant at the confluence of River Des Peres and the Mississippi River, on the site of what is now River City Casino.
The street address had been 8900 South Broadway. The site was approximately 88 acres, bounded by River Des Peres on the north, the Mississippi River on the east, the Union Pacific railroad tracks on the west, and extending more or less as far south as Hoffmeister Avenue.
Titanium dioxide was used primarily as pigment for white paint. It is still used for that today, but is also a common ingredient in sunscreen. As recently as 1969, it was the largest plant of its kind in the world.
Their other titanium dioxide plant and their research facility was in Sayreville, New Jersey. National Lead Company, as its name implies, had been a leading producer of lead oxide. Titanium dioxide yields a more pure white pigment and of course is less hazardous. But of course, lead was not completely eliminated as a paint component until 1977.
National Lead Company was a large, vertically integrated company. In addition to owning mines and pigment plants, it made paint. National Lead owned and operated Dutch Boy Paints from 1907 to 1980, when they sold the Dutch Boy trademark to Sherwin-Williams.
Environmental concerns about the plant
The plant had long been a source of environmental concern and legal action, both from local, state, and national authorities.
National Lead Co and St Louis’ battle over emissions
In the late 1960s, National Lead Co. and St Louis County fought over sulfur emissions standards, with National Lead Co. threatening layoffs until the two parties reached a compromise. Equipment to reduce the sulfuric acid emissions was finally installed in early 1970. Besides legal action from St Louis County, National Lead Co also faced private lawsuits because of the property damage caused by the sulfuric acid emissions.
When the plant was expanded in 1935, part of the expansion was supposed to include facilities to eliminate any unpleasant or harmful fumes. But complaints about fumes from the plant started soon after the expansion. A letter to the editor in the December 2nd, 1944 issue of the St Louis Post-Dispatch noted that the city had been trying to curb emissions for years. The plant was just outside the city limits. But there was a statute that gave the city jurisdiction over nuisances within one half mile of the city limits. In 1976, the St Louis Globe Democrat reported that National Lead spewed nearly 7,200 tons of sulfur dioxide into the air each year.
In 1969, the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration required National Lead Co to stop dumping untreated wastewater into the Mississippi River. The Missouri Water Pollution Commission then informed the federal government that it was issuing the company a permit to continue dumping untreated chemicals into the Mississippi River. As of March 1969, the plant was dumping 16 million gallons of sewage per day into the river. The waste included such chemicals as sulfuric acid, iron sulfate, silicon oxide, calcium sulfate, titanium oxide, and unidentified solids. The level of pollution and the water was estimated at the time to be 68 times higher than that of household domestic sewage.
MSD to the rescue
Conveniently, the Metropolitan Sewer District had built a wastewater treatment plant right next to the titanium dioxide plant. It had enough capacity to treat the wastewater coming from National Lead, at least for the next 12 years.
There was considerable disagreement over treating the wastewater. The State of Missouri was primarily concerned about the wastewater discoloring the limestone bluffs along the river. Missouri just wanted the waste pumped further out into the river. But the State of Illinois would have had something to say about that.
The Army Corps of Engineers would not issue a permit for a pipeline to the nearby wastewater treatment plant unless some amount of pretreatment occurred. National Lead Co did not want to do the pre-treatment. National Lead also claimed the treatment plant was not able to treat the wastewater. MSD and the designers of the plant said they could, that the only issue was capacity. But MSD was going to charge for treating the wastewater based on the amounts of material processed. Dumping the water into the river was cheaper.
National Lead Co and MSD finally reached an agreement in early 1970 to direct the wastewater to the treatment plant by July 1975.
The National Lead Co plants were Lemay’s largest employer. At their peak, they employed , over 1,400 people, and employed approximately 1,000 people for most of the 1970s. In 1977, National Lead Co. started winding down operations at the plant, due to it being the largest polluter in the area, and being unwilling or unable to reduce sulfur emissions. The plant closed for good in 1979 and was vacant for many years. Threats to close the plant due to the emissions started as early as November 1969.
There was a second plant on the site, known as the Delore plant. It opened in 1915 as the CP Delore company, expanded in 1923, and National Lead Company bought dolor in 1933. The Delore plant made barium sulfate and calcium carbonate pigments. The Delore plant, which was smaller, closed in 1981.
The similar situation in New Jersey
As much as the closing of the plant sounds like spite, their other titanium dioxide plant in Sayreville, New Jersey didn’t last much longer. The New Jersey plant closed in 1982. Officially, the company blamed the recession. They claimed it had nothing to do with their environmental issues in New Jersey, where they had a track record as the most heavily fined polluter in that state.
That took some doing. I remember in 1984 when my dad drove his mother, a Pennsylvania resident at the time, through Times Beach, Missouri, and he introduced it as the most heavily polluted city in the country. She expressed doubt that it could be as bad as New Jersey.
The story in New Jersey was much the same as in Missouri. Around 60 air and water violations over the course of a decade, 1.29 million dollars in fines, missed deadlines in implementing pollution controls.
There are a good number of urban exploration images of former National Lead Company property online. Most, if not all of those are facilities that were in New Jersey. Six of the companies New Jersey operations went on to become EPA Superfund sites.
NL industries, the successor to National Lead Co., is still in the titanium dioxide business, but much of that is the result of acquisitions that occurred after closing their troubled operations in St Louis and New Jersey.
National Lead Co’s long history in St Louis
National Lead Co was founded in 1891, and its predecessor companies had a presence in the St Louis area as early as 1837. They were one of the original 12 companies in the Dow Jones industrial average. They were removed in 1914, though the company still exists today. It changed its name to NL Industries in 1971.
In the 1930s, National Lead Co. sponsored a semi professional baseball team, employing the players during the week at the titanium plant while they played baseball on the weekends. James Easter, the father of Luke Easter, who broke the color barrier in the American League, played the outfield and first base for National Lead Co’s Titanium Giants in St Louis.
As of 1967, they operated seven plants in the St Louis area and employed 2,000 people. They had operations at 4153 Clayton Avenue, 5548 Manchester Avenue (along the original alignment of Route 66), 1015 Locust Street, a steel plant in Granite City, and the two plants in Lemay. In 1967, paint and pigments accounted for 35% of the company’s total sales.
The titanium pigment plant was by far their largest operation in St Louis. Various other St Louis operations continued after the 1979 closure of the Lemay plant, but NL Industries’ St Louis presence officially ended in 1992.
Economic decline in Lemay after National Lead Co’s departure
The unincorporated city of Lemay and the Hancock School district struggled as a result of National Lead Co’s departure. The plants had been the largest source of tax revenue in the area, as well as the major employer. If you ever wondered why when you drive through Lemay, you see old commercial buildings in the 1960s and 1970s style, but don’t see much in the way of recent development, that has something to do with it.
The economic decline of the Lemay area after the closure of the National Lead Company plant is unfortunate, but also seems inevitable. The Lemay plant was the first one to close, but if it hadn’t closed in 1979, it seems likely it would have closed within a few years of the New Jersey plant.
When the plants closed, there was little interest in the site. St Louis County sought to purchase the site to redevelop. National Lead demanded 7.5 million dollars, which the county described as top dollar for the site. In 1987, St Louis County purchased the site for a total of 1.8 million dollars. Even at that price, no one else was interested.
Early efforts to redevelop the site as a port or other industrial area never got far. The similarly troubled Carondelet Coke site on the other side of River Des Peres had a comparable amount of disinterest. Then again, former industrial sites often have little interest. The Crunden-Martin complex downtown has been vacant for 30 years and it didn’t have the environmental cleanup problems.
River City Casino
Efforts to place a casino on the former National Lead site began in 1993, and gained approval in June 2004. Construction began in November 2005. The River City Casino facility cost approximately $375 million to build, and opened in 2010.
At the time of the casino’s approval, 75% of students in Lemay’s Hancock Place school district qualified for free or reduced price lunches.
A number of other sites were proposed, including the former site of Koch Hospital, but St. Louis County wanted the site cleaned up and wanted to give the Lemay area an economic boost. That’s how a casino ended up next to a sewage treatment plant instead of on the site of an old cholera cemetery.
During the same timeframe, the City of St. Louis wanted a casino. But rather than make a casino operator clean up Carondelet Coke, the city planted its casino downtown, on the site of the Mississippi Nights nightclub.