Times Beach residents win fight for relocation from contaminated dioxin sites

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Timing
Time Period:  
29 January
1983
to
11 December
1995
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Times Beach, Missouri
Goals: 
To relocate all residents living in the town of Times Beach, MO.
 

Between 1970 and 1976, Russell Bliss used a toxic mixture of motor oil and dioxin to spray the unpaved roads in Times Beach, MO. The community hired Bliss, a career waste disposer, to reduce its dust problem. Unbeknownst to residents of the small town, Independent Petrochemical Corporation (IPC) paid Bliss for the disposal of its hazardous dioxin waste. Under the auspices of Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Company (NEPACCO), IPC generated dioxin through its production of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

Local residents grew suspicious of Bliss after horses and birds suddenly died. Some people also complained of nausea, headaches, and nosebleeds after Bliss sprayed the roads. In 1971, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) launched a study in response to community members’ reports. The CDC soil tests revealed elevated levels of dioxin at multiple sites within Times Beach, but could not establish a connection between Bliss and the contamination.

Founded in the 1980s, Times Beach Action Group (TBAG) launched a relocation campaign to protect the town’s 2,400 residents from prolonged toxic exposure. Times Beach community members learned of the connection between Bliss and the dioxin contamination after an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report leaked to the public on 4 December 1982. A day later, the nearby Meramec River overflowed, flooding the town and destroying homes. Nearly 40% of Times Beach residents fled town following the flood.

As a result of the untimely disaster and soil test results, the CDC released a statement on 23 December 1982 labeling Times Beach an uninhabitable town. In January 1983, President Ronald Reagan assembled a task force to assess the extent of the community’s dioxin contamination. The task force’s research led the EPA to declare Times Beach a Superfund site in 1983.

The EPA began dioxin and flood-debris tests on 5 January 1983. Displaced residents worried about returning home because of the health risks associated with exposure to dioxin, a known carcinogen. The town’s 50 remaining residents voiced similar concerns. EPA soil tests found dioxin content at 100 ppb at some sites. Simultaneously, officials from the Army Corp of Engineers suggested rebuilding a new Times Beach on elevated ground due to its high flood risk.

On 29 January 1983, Times Beach residents delayed a government meeting with federal officials regarding the community’s dioxin cleanup. Frustrated with the slow process, community members interrupted speakers and heckled an official who couldn’t respond to a question regarding relocation. Community members complained the waste remained in their community after federal agencies proved dioxin contamination.

In an attempt to gain attention from the state government on 15 February 1983, residents snuck past security to leave a ribbon-wrapped black styrofoam child’s coffin on the lawn of Governor Christopher Bond’s mansion. Gov. Bond met residents outside, but spoke in a brusque manner. Leaders of the group placed a letter in the coffin requesting the governor call a town meeting to discuss the dioxin problem by 24 February.

Anne Gorsuch Burford, EPA administrator, responded to a TBAG petition sent to President Reagan on 22 February 1983. TBAG members requested the federal government buy remaining households in Times Beach. Gorsuch Burford allocated $33 million from the Superfund program to relocation through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). However, even with a secured buyout deal, some residents wanted to remain in Times Beach.

Residents living in the community faced threats from looters. The St. Louis County police department announced limited patrolling of the town due to its dioxin contamination. Officers checked unfamiliar cars at roadblocks outside of town and used car spotlights to catch potential looters. On 25 March 1983, residents also reported anonymous calls from a man who threatened to burn down their homes. The caller singled out residents who did not have signs on their yards indicating support for the buyout.

After years of testing and debating cleanup methods, the EPA announced its decision to construct an incinerator in Times Beach on 31 March 1988. Local officials, like Mayor Joseph Morgan of Fenton, feared hazardous waste from other areas would be sent to the nearby incinerator. Moreover, TBAG members argued that burning did not remove all traces of dioxin. In January 1990, Eureka, MO residents created the Times Beach Environmental Task Force to fight against the incinerator and provide support for TBAG.

The Environmental Task Force worked with lawmakers to fight the incinerator. State Senator Thomas McCarthy (R-Chesterfield) promised to introduce a bill to prohibit the construction of incinerators in floodplains, where hazardous materials could not be contained if they washed away. The group also had support from local officials including: Representative Bill Linton (R-Grover), Representative James Murphy (R-Crestwood), Representative Paula Carter (D-St. Louis).

Community opposition to the incinerator mounted on 2 April 1994. Approximately 30 protesters from TBAG placed two handmade plywood nuclear reactor cooling towers in the parking lot of the visitors center outside of Times Beach. They used smoke bombs to imitate the smoke emitted by such towers. Protesters painted a skull and crossbones on one of the towers and left a message that read: “EPA Lies, Dioxin Kills.” Steve Taylor, TBAG founder, wanted the contaminated soil to be contained rather than burned. During the action, Taylor stated, “we are dedicated to the principle of non-violence.”

In addition to the plywood structures, TBAG members carried signs criticizing the EPA and wore “moon” suits. The protesters’ apparel symbolized suits worn by scientists who conduct tests of hazardous waste sites. A plane flew over the lot carrying a message that said, “No Dioxin Incinerator at Times Beach.” Police arrested three protesters at the April action. At the action, the group also demanded a meeting with NEPACCO subsidiary Syntex Agribusiness Technologies, the corporation hired by the EPA to build the incinerator. Neither the EPA nor Syntex responded to the protesters’ request.

With the support of Gateway Green Alliance, TBAG co-hosted a three-day conference in St. Louis, MO to call attention to St. Louis County’s dioxin problem. One of the participants, Fred Striley of Eureka helped gather 2,000 signatures for a petition against the incinerator. Other activists in attendance provided advice based on their personal experiences fighting incinerators. Joan Moser of TBAG believed the government wanted to “destroy the evidence by using the dangerous and outdated technology of incineration.”

TBAG delivered a petition with 3,000 signatures to Governor Mel Carnahan’s office on 4 October 1994. Members requested Gov. Carnahan reopen the decree with Syntex approving construction of the Times Beach incinerator, which Taylor and others from TBAG said was motivated by campaign donations. Taylor wore a moon suit to the state Capitol and carried a sign that said: “Oust Mel.” TBAG wanted the state to wait for a federal consent decree because it required complete cleanup of Times Beach and the 26 other contaminated sites in Missouri.

The state officially approved the dioxin incinerator in April 1995. At a TBAG action on 18 April, Taylor stated, "they may have to run over us to build this project.” A group of 20 members protested the incinerator on the steps of the Capitol. Incinerator opposition continued in July 1995 during a “tri-state” protest with anti-incinerator activists from Missouri, Illinois, and Arkansas. Protesters exposed themselves to 92-degree heat and a group of 75 protesters marched in a circle chanting, "you'll breathe it, you'll eat it, you'll die of toxic waste."The construction manager for the incinerator project provided protesters with cold jugs of water and grape Kool-Aid to keep them hydrated in the heat. Taylor invited police officers to attend a cookout after the protest despite 14 police arrests for trespassing.

TBAG member Tammy Shea disrupted a neighboring Wildwood City Council meeting in August 1995. The meeting focused on the Times Beach incinerator, which most Wildwood council members supported. Shea asked council members to consider the negative impacts of the incinerator. The council invited her to discuss the project with Wildwood’s mayor at a 26 September meeting. Taylor echoed Shea’s feelings in a memo published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on 22 September. Taylor called out Gov. Carnahan, describing the governor’s inaction as an “affront to the Show-Me state's motto: ‘The welfare of the people shall be the supreme law.’"

Despite protests against the Times Beach incinerator, the first batch of contaminated soil burned in November 1995. TBAG issued a statement on 9 December outlining the group’s plan to confront St. Louis County Commission officials at its next meeting. The commission failed to acknowledge the organization’s request for a 30-day freeze to ensure proper testing and risk assessment of the incinerator. TBAG members prepped for the County Commission meeting on 10 December. One woman chained herself to the gate around the incinerator to demonstrate her opposition. Police arrested another woman at the TBAG meeting.

At the 11 December commission meeting, 20 protesters delayed its start by interrupting speakers. Prior to its start, Tracy Park chained herself to the front gate of the meeting place with a cyclist’s chain. She prevented access to the meeting, and vehicles were re-routed to a different entrance. Park unchained herself after being outside for over an hour. Police escorted Taylor out of the meeting and arrested Shea for peace disturbance. In response to the events Shea said, “we were there...to confront the criminals.” The commissioners eventually agreed to initiate an official request to halt incineration until new tests proved the project’s safety.

Gateway Green Alliance, Student Environmental Action Coalition, Greenpeace, and the Sierra Club attended a TBAG rally, which occurred on 2 August 1996. Like the July 1995 protest, participants exposed themselves to 94-degree heat; however, they were unimpressed with the builders’ Kool-Aid offering. Nearly 100 people participated and officers arrested 15 people for trespassing because they crossed a fence restricting access to the incinerator construction site.

The incinerator continued to burn the dioxin contaminated soil until 1997. About 265,000 pounds of contaminated soil and debris from Times Beach, and 28 other sites in MO, burned at the incinerator. Residents’ lawsuits against Bliss and NEPACCO failed in the courts. After the EPA ensured proper cleanup of Times Beach, it turned the site over to the State of Missouri. Ultimately, Missouri converted Times Beach into Route 66 State Park, which opened in October 1999. By 2001, the EPA officially removed the site from its federal Superfund list.

Research Notes
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Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Shayla Smith 02/05/2017