Alton's Sierra Club balances ecology with the business climate
By Ted Cox
As coordinator of the Three Rivers Project in Alton, right between where both the Illinois River and the Missouri River join the mighty Mississippi, Virginia Woulfe-Belle is concerned with environmental balance.
Times being what they are, that means she has to be aware of the business environment as well.
Woulfe-Belle is part of the Sierra Club’s Piasa Palisades Group. Local Sierra Club members most recently have been battling an attempt to ease regulations on Dynegy Midwest Generation’s coal-burning power plants in Illinois.
“Basically, they want to be able to emit more sulphur,” Woulfe-Belle said. “We know and science knows that’s not good.
“There are a lot of at-risk populations that are really going to suffer from this,” she added. “It will literally kill people.”
In hearings before the Illinois Pollution Control Board, with even the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency receptive to the eased regulations in the current political environment, that’s put her on the opposite side not only of business executives, but neighbors who are employed at the plants.
“We certainly don’t want people losing their jobs, and we’re not asking these plants to close down,” she said. “We’re just asking them to be good actors in our community … do what they can do to keep the community safe, keep the air clean, not backslide into conditions we were facing before the Clean Air Act, before the Clean Water Act.”
It’s an eternal struggle, Woulfe-Belle said, or at least it has been ever since the Sierra Club got started in the area in the early ‘70s by shooting photographs of pollution being dumped into the Mississippi by a local business, along with testing the water.
“That wasn’t always well-received when you’re messing with someone’s livelihood,” she said.
"We certainly don’t want people losing their jobs, and we’re not asking these plants to close down. We’re just asking them to be good actors in our community."
Virginia Woulfe-Belle, Three Rivers Project coordinator with the Sierra Club (One Illinois/Zachary Sigelko)
But almost a half-century later, the impacts of that early environmentalism are abundantly clear in Alton. The Melvin Price Lock & Dam that was begun in the late ‘80s and completed in the mid-‘90s created the water basin that encouraged bald eagles to make it a wintering hotspot, bolstered, Wolfe-Belle pointed out, by the Audubon Riverlands across the river. “That engagement came about from our club’s actions, when they built the new lock and dam,” she said.
For more than 20 years, Alton has been known across the state as the place to see eagles, and while the eagle population is resurgent all down the Mississippi — with one museum guard on the Rock Island Arsenal saying she’s heard visitors say they’re “like sparrows” now — Alton retains its prominence in the field. According to Woulfe-Belle, Alton’s Convention & Visitors Bureau puts an emphasis on it so that “half of their program is about Eagle Days.”
Peak season is considered from December through February, but Rachael Heaton of the nearby TreeHouse Wildlife Center said eagles are beginning to nest in the area year-round.
Woulfe-Belle has lived in Alton all her life, so she doesn’t need to be reminded about the economic downtown the city suffered in the ‘70s and ‘80s, like many river towns.
“We were really feeling the brunt of the loss of the industry, and people were moving out,” she said. Population fell from a peak near 50,000 to the current 28,000.
Yet that had far more to do with a shifting manufacturing environment around the world than it did with any local pollution regulations. And since that time Alton has achieved what looks to be a nice equilibrium, with an enlarged riverfront park with an amphitheater created by a berm, and with a business district recently revitalized in part thanks to a #MyAlton campaign as part of the Hulu TV series “Small Business Revolution.”
Like other thriving towns up and down the Mississippi, Alton has made up in tourism much of what it inevitably lost in manufacturing, with Woulfe-Belle pointing to Pere Marquette State Park as an example. The Sierra Club and other local environmental groups led a battle against widespread logging there, and drew the line at a water park being built nearby, preventing a larger development that would have included a golf course. As it is, Woulfe-Belle said, the park’s impressive lodge, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, is booked for much of the summer season. Sierra Club members take part twice a year in repairing other cabins and otherwise sprucing things up.
Woulfe-Belle was quick to credit an “umbrella organization” of local environmental groups for keeping Alton both vital and livable.
“The local groups like ours on the ground are really relevant,” she said. “We are the ones watching what goes on, because so much of this happens without anybody’s knowledge. So if there’s not a watchdog or a whistleblower, these things just happen, and then, before you know it, you have a Flint, Mich.
“We take what we do really seriously,” she added. “It’s been challenging, especially in the last year and a half.”
The local Sierra Club members are just that, she emphasized: locals. “We’re not working for our membership,” she said. “We’re working for the human beings who breathe the air and drink the water. We’re really here to serve communities, and much of our work is focused on communities, but we have to be aware of what’s going on in the big picture.
“I think what speaks well of this community is just the way groups work together with the Sierra Club, and we look to each other as resources,” she added. “The goal is to enhance our community and the quality of life.”