The little river town dioxin killed Erased: Times Beach has been bulldozed, its residents paid off. It's been 14 years since the toxic chemical compound dioxin closed the town. Now Missouri wants to turn the area into a park.

Sun Journal

November 13, 1996|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

ST. LOUIS -- Nature is reclaiming Times Beach.

Fourteen years after one of the nation's worst chemical nightmares, the 801 families of the Missouri river-front town have scattered. Their houses and belongings have been bulldozed. Even the town's name has been erased from Missouri highway maps.

"It doesn't look like home," says Marilyn Leistner, the town's last mayor, revisiting the area. Now living in nearby Eureka, she had trouble finding the unmarked street where she had lived for 26 years.

Times Beach was a victim of the chemical called dioxin, and then of a flood. The final stage of the $100 million-plus cleanup of the demolished town began early this year -- but this last chapter of a 20-year ordeal with dioxin is almost as contentious as the first.

Missouri intends to make the remains of Times Beach into a 524-acre park complete with hiking and biking trails. But first 230,000 tons of contaminated dirt from the town and 26 other dioxin-polluted sites in eastern Missouri must be incinerated.

With about 130,000 tons of contaminated dirt already treated, officials involved in the project say they expect to be finished by spring.

Dioxin is not a single substance but a family of about 75 compounds. They are accidental byproducts of chemical manufacturing and of waste incineration. But dioxin achieved notoriety in the 1970s as an ingredient in the herbicide Agent Orange -- which the United States used extensively during the Vietnam War -- and as one of the toxic wastes dumped at Love Canal in New York.

The dioxin that fouled eastern Missouri came from a pharmaceutical company manufacturing hexachlorophene, widely used antiseptic until 1972. Russell Bliss, a waste-oil hauler, claimed he didn't know that dioxin was in the company wastes he was paid to take away.

State officials discovered what Bliss did with those wastes in the late 1970s, when they began investigating deaths of animals at a riding stable where Bliss had sprayed dioxin-laced oil to control dust.

Then in October 1982, a lawsuit by an environmental group forced the government to release a list of 27 contaminated sites. It mentioned "various streets" in Times Beach.

The community had paid to have its unpaved roads sprayed to keep dust down, and residents remembered children playing barefoot in the black oily mist. Bliss had performed similar services for trucking terminals, farms, a mobile home community and a church.

The news rocked Times Beach, a mostly blue-collar community that had started out in the 1920s as a summer resort. Less than two months after the news about dioxin, and with residents still in an uproar, a flash flood from the Meramec River forced everyone to evacuate the town. Federal officials, worried that people's homes had been contaminated by the raging waters, decided to bar residents from returning.

"We acted on recommendations of the health agencies," says Bob Feild, the Environmental Protection Agency's Times Beach cleanup manager. "Dioxin was so widespread it was along virtually every road."

The federal government subsequently bought residents out for $32 million, with each homeowner getting an average of $30,000.

Syntex Agribusiness, the firm that bought the factory where the dioxin waste was produced, found itself subject to the federal Superfund law and liable for the contamination. The company agreed to shoulder the cost of cleaning up Times Beach in exchange for the EPA paying for the cleanup of 26 smaller sites.

"We were a victim of dioxin along with everybody else," says Gary J. Pendergrass, project coordinator for Agribusiness Technologies, the Syntex subsidiary handling the cleanup.

The EPA reached agreement with the company in 1990 to excavate and incinerate the dirt at Times Beach and the other contaminated sites. But legal action and protests delayed the burning until this year.

A gray incinerator sits on a man-made 7-foot plateau in the middle of the former town, surrounded by an earthen dike to protect it from the Meramec's occasional floods. The tainted soil has been scraped up and awaits treatment in plastic-covered pits. Covered dump trucks bring in 750 tons of tainted cargo daily, and the incinerator cooks the dirt at up to 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit to destroy the dioxin. Then the soil is returned to the ground.

Syntex and EPA officials say burning the dirt destroys 99.9999 percent of the dioxin. Compared with the traces of dioxin found virtually everywhere in this country, the amount left after incineration is barely detectable, officials say. "We are achieving essentially a walkaway cleanup level for Times Beach," says Field of the EPA.

But some former residents are not convinced.

"It's easier to just throw it all in the incinerator and burn it and get rid of the liability," contends Steve Taylor of Times Beach Action Group. Police last year broke up a sit-in organized by his group in which more than 100 protesters tried to block the road leading to the incinerator.

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