America’s Hazardous Waste Ghost Town – Times Beach

Superfund site Warning sign outside Times Beach, Missouri
Superfund site Warning sign outside Times Beach, Missouri 1985

Along famed ROUTE 66 just outside St. Louis, is one of Missouri’s newer state parks. But one with a very checkered past, as it’s the former location of the town of Times Beach and an infamous hazardous waste site.

In the 1970s, the lower-middle class town couldn’t afford to pave its miles of dirt streets and was plagued with constant dust clouds kicked up by cars and trucks. To solve the problem, the city hired waste hauler Russell Bliss to spray what was supposed to be just used engine oil on the streets, at a cheap cost of 6 cents a gallon.

Bliss said it would do the trick, cause he’d successfully sprayed his horse stables and other ranches in the area. He also knew he’d make a profit, as he got the materials from the companies that paid him to haul their wastes away. Bliss mixed 1 tank load of used engine oil with 6 tanks of waste liquid from a nearby chemical plant. It was one that manufacturing the notorious defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

The liquid waste was tainted with toxic levels of Dioxin.

For 4 years, he was regular sight in Times Beach.  Bliss sprayed his carcinogenic cocktail on the dirt streets of Times Beach. Kids loved sliding around in Bliss’ slippery purplish goo. And it worked too, gluing the dirt to the road for up to 10 months. No one gave the foul-smelling substance a second thought, that is, until horses at the ranches he had sprayed started dropping dead. Soon town’s people began to get sick as well.

What the city didn’t know is that Bliss hauled waste for the Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Company (NEPACCO). The waste liquid contained levels of Dioxin (at the time the most potent cancer-causing agent made by man) that were  2,000 time higher than the Agent Orange used in Vietnam!

When 62 horses died in stables Bliss had sprayed, the owners contacted the Dept. of Agriculture and CDC who began an investigation in 1979. The US EPA then began to visit Times Beach in 1982, taking soil samples and identified dangerously high levels of Dioxin. Bliss was vilified by the press, town and state, and claimed he was completelyt unaware the waste contained any toxic chemicals.

Soon, panic spread as every illness and pet death in town was attributed to the toxic spraying.

The controversy over what to do next pitted townsfolk against one another. Residents felt betrayed and publicly criticized the US EPA for not informing them of the danger sooner! Why did it take two years?  The half-life of dioxin is 11 years, so the problem wasn’t going away anytime soon.

In December 1982, the Meramec River on the edge of town flooded 14 feet during heavy winter rains, spreading the contamination throughout ALL the homes and buildings in the entire town. Shortly after Christmas Day, US EPA men in white body suits and respirators showed up on people’s lawns, telling them to evacuate immediately.

Marilyn Leistner, the last Times Beach mayor said the message from the government was clear:

If you live in the community, you need to get out. And do not take anything with you. If you are outside of the community, do not come back!

US EPA warning to residents

The media painted Times Beach, Missouri and the similar Love Canal in New York as the poster children of toxic pollution in America. President Reagan formed a Dioxin Task Force to study the effects of the chemical. In early 1983, the US EPA announced the entire town’s buyout at a cost of $36 million dollars!

Within 2 years, the entire population of 2,242 residents had been moved, with the exception of 1 elderly couple, life-long residents who refused to leave their life-long home. The ghost town was dis-incorporated by the Missouri Governor, calling it sad but necessary, and the entire empty town was blockaded behind chain link fencing.

One US EPA official said to visit the silent, abandoned town was heart-wrenching.

Walking the vacant streets and into the empty houses, it was like people had just dashed out and never came back. There were still Christmas trees inside and decorations hanging outside.  Food was in rotting in refrigerators and clothes still hung in closets.

Abandoned church in Times Beach Missouri
Abandoned church in Times Beach, Missouri

For the residents who moved, the ordeal was far from over. They continued to worry about the long-term effects on their children’s health. Among Vietnam Vets, Dioxin used in Agent Orange has caused cancer, skin diseases, immune disorders, and birth defects. Some of the 800 families were shunned by neighboring Missouri communities, who wrongly feared contamination from contagious residents.

Hundreds of lawsuits were filed against Bliss and NEPACCO. Though Bliss’ spraying was undoubtedly the source, his pleas of ignorance were believed and he was never convicted of any crime. As for NEPACCO, no laws were yet in effect that regulated the disposal of hazardous waste, so they too were cleared of guilt.

For a more than a decade, the buildings and houses sat deserted behind barricades and black & yellow warning signs, while Washington politicians decided what to do with Times Beach, Missouri. The massive clean-up operation first demolished all the houses and buried the rubble, including the foundations under a huge mound of dirt.

In 1997, the government removed 265,000 tons of contaminated soil at a cost of $110 million.

An incinerator was built on the site. After all the contaminated dirt was incinerated, the site was turned over to the State. Thankfully an American Medical Association study could find no long-term health effects in the evacuated families … yet.  Survivors are still monitored annually to this day.

Times Beach and Love Canal brought hazardous waste dumping and toxic pollution to national attention and the US EPA cleaned up hundreds of other toxic waste sites for the next 20 years. Congress passed the Superfund Act in 1980 to address the clean-up of the worst of the worst hazardous waste sites in America.

The cleaned-up, former town was turned over to the state and Missouri built the ROUTE 66 STATE PARK. The 419-acre park opened in 1999 and includes a historical museum of the town’s infamous past. Few visitors of the park realize that under a huge grassy mound of earth 4 football fields long lies the sad remains of Times Beach homes. If you care to visit Times Beach and the Route 66 State Park to check it out yourself, it located right off I-44 at exit 266.

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Published by andrewspaulw

LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

2 thoughts on “America’s Hazardous Waste Ghost Town – Times Beach

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