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The Mississippi flood plane just east of St. Louis was once home to as many as 20,000 Native Americans. Cahokia was the largest urban center north of Central Mexico and the people who lived there a millennium ago built North America's largest concentration of mounds. Today, some modern-day mounds are encroaching on the area and these are filled with trash.

Maria Hickey of member station KWMU reports.

MARIA HICKEY: It's quite a hike to the top of Monk's Mound. The grassy hill has four terraces and climbs to a flat plateau, 100 feet high. Red steps carry visitors to the crest. This is the largest earthen mound in North or South America, and it helped put Cahokia on UNESCO's world heritage list in the company of the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China.

Archaeologists say a temple once stood on Monk's Mound. From here, a high chief oversaw stockaded city ringed by suburbs and more than 100 mounds each used for its own purpose.

Today, Kathy Andria, the head of the American Bottom Conservancy points out the St. Louis Arch and the city skyscrapers in the distance. Just to the right on the horizon is another large mound, but this one's a landfill.

Ms. KATHY ANDRIA (President, American Bottom Conservancy): When you go to Missouri, you're greeted by the arch. When you come to Illinois, you're greeted by a landfill.

HICKEY: Andria's group and the Illinois Sierra Club are fighting a proposed expansion of the Milam landfill. They have a laundry list of concerns, including that it's too close to the prehistoric mounds, that's located in wetlands, and it would disturb Native American burial grounds. Andria says a skull was found two years ago on the proposed site.

Ms. ANDRIA: It's so disrespectful to Indians today that we'll put a landfill where there's burial, where there are mounds. It's a sacred site to them.

HICKEY: But the Cahokian mounds are already surrounded by modern life: interstates, small towns, and the Milam landfill. The Madison, Illinois City Council unanimously approved the landfill expansion, pushing it closer to the world heritage site boundaries. Waste Management of Illinois owns the landfill. Spokesman Bill Plunkett says there's always some opposition.

Mr. BILL PLUNKETT (Spokesman, Waste Management of Illinois): You know, landfills are seldom popular, but we all need a place to dispose off our waste.

HICKEY: Plunkett says the current landfill will be full in six years. He says the company realizes the proposed site is sensitive. State officials have determined the skull that waste management found was Native American. But Plunkett says archaeological experts scoured the area for months and found nothing more.

Mr. PLUNKETT: And their conclusion was clear. There is no evidence to suggest that there was a burial site at the North Milam Property.

HICKEY: If it can expand the landfill, waste management will pay the town of Madison $1 million a year. And Mayor John Heim says that would go a long way in a town of just 4,500 people.

Mayor JOHN HEIM (Madison): A million dollars to the general fund each year would be fine. Our police department now doesn't have computers in their squad cars; streets, alleys, infrastructure for the city, that will mean a lot for us that we can go ahead and get started on newer things that should have been done 15, 20 years ago.

HICKEY: Back on Monk's Mound, Kathy Andria says she can't believe this fight is even taking place.

Ms. ANDRIA: We have this jewel of a site here. It is recognized by the world and it is supposed to be protected.

HICKEY: Andria and others hope future visitors to this world heritage will not have to look out on two landfills.

For NPR News, I'm Maria Hickey in St. Louis.

HANSEN: You're listening to NPR News.

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