Remember Times Beach: The Dioxin Disaster, 30 Years Later
It's been 30 years since dioxin contamination was discovered in Times Beach, in one of the largest environmental disasters in our nation's history. The town is gone, but the people remain.
Photography by Samuel Zide
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Emmett Copeland moved to Times Beach as a teenager in the early 1970s. His parents opened a donut shop at the corner of Forest Road and Park Drive, serving Boston creams and coffee to the residents of the tight-knit community, nestled in a valley along the Meramec River, southwest of St. Louis. They even had a couple of pool tables, and one time, Minnesota Fats stopped by for a game.
Copeland made friends with a kid who went by the name Boner T. Bunch. “I don’t know his real name, because he never did say it,” Copeland says. Bunch lived at Cape Cod, a little motel on the edge of town. Crammed into a single bungalow, he and his siblings slept on pallets. The whole family chewed tobacco.
Every morning, Bunch would come to the donut shop. He’d take out the trash in exchange for a free pastry. Sometimes, Copeland and Bunch would spend a summer day walking the railroad tracks on the west end of town. Or they might go fishing in the river. One day, on a dare, the boys sneaked into a church and pilfered its bell. To broadcast the crime—and thereby maximize the thrill—they stashed their loot atop the town’s police station. “If you looked up, there it was,” Copeland says, still giggling about it 40 years later. “For about a week and a half, that was the biggest topic.”
Eventually, one of the town’s police officers, a 300-pound man nicknamed Tiny, whom Copeland remembers eating quite a few long johns from his parents’ shop, identified the culprits. In addition to receiving a firm ass-whooping from his father, Copeland was sentenced to an hour in jail. The single cell was only large enough for one, so the boys had to take turns doing their hard time.
They also had to spend several weeks working on the city’s road crew. One of Copeland’s tasks was to help a waste hauler named Russell Bliss spread used motor oil on the unpaved streets, in an effort to control dust.
Copeland didn’t know it then, but he had inadvertently contributed to wiping the entire town off the map. The oil, it turned out, was laced with dioxin.
Marilyn Leistner lives in a sturdy brick house on the top of a hill. A boulder sits in the center of her well-manicured front yard, next to an inviting driveway leading to an attached garage. A 74-year-old grandmother, Leistner looks 10 years younger and remains as feisty as ever, with no plans to retire. Her second husband died years ago, so she lives alone, unless you count her cat, Sarah Palin.
She serves as a Eureka alderwoman, continuing a career in public service that had been cut short when her stint as mayor of Times Beach ended with the town’s abolishment. She lived there for a quarter century, until December 1982, at which point the town was thrown into what she calls the “time of flood and dioxin.” She has spent the past quarter century telling the Times Beach story.
It’s important for people to know what happened, to remember. After dealing with the revelatory shock, the stress, the mysterious health issues, and the anger from all sides, yes, Marilyn Leistner would like you to remember Times Beach. Sitting at her dining-room table, gazing out across the hillside through her glass patio doors, she begins. The words come easily, honed over decades of repetition.
Times Beach was founded, oddly enough, as a newspaper promotion. In 1925, folks who paid $67.50 for a six-month subscription to the old St. Louis Times received a tract in Times Beach. The lots were small, and you needed at least two to build a house. The paper had purchased the land from a farmer and rebranded it as a resort, a place for doctors from St. Louis to relax or catch a few fish on the weekend. The full-page advertisements boasted that “the sweltering heat and discomfort of the city are unknown at Times Beach.”
It was an overstatement, to be sure, but one rooted in fact—at least until the Great Depression. “During the Depression, a lot of the people in the city moved into their homes in Times Beach to ride out the hard times,” Leistner says. Even so, between picnics with neighbors, river recreation, town dances, and quite a few saloons, life in the Beach, as old-timers called it, was downright pastoral.
Leistner grew up in Valley Park and moved to Times Beach in December 1956, at age 18. Six months earlier, she’d met a young man named Jerry Akers, a Marine who was home on leave. They married in California and moved in with his parents, sharing a two-bedroom house on Forest Road. Eventually, they moved into a place of their own and started a family.
As Leistner describes it, Times Beach was idyllic. The sense of community, of belonging, made up for any financial lacking. “It was like everybody was related to everybody,” Leistner says. “If you were born and raised there, you grew up there, but then you moved there.”
On Saturday nights, she and her husband would get together with friends to play penny-ante poker. One year on Halloween, while the men were playing cards, the ladies sneaked away and toilet-papered the chief of police’s house. “The next day, he was sure that somebody was doing it to get even with him,” Leistner says. “It was so awful. They were looking for who did it. I had to go tell him we did it.”
Slowly, the town grew. Cottages on stilts were replaced with modular homes and even a few brick houses. Leistner (at right) remembers four churches and four taverns, a perfect balance. The liquor store doubled as a tackle shop, selling rods and bait. Much to the chagrin of longtime residents, a trailer park opened, followed by a second one. Then came a 7-Eleven. To pad the city’s coffers, it stationed a cop with a radar gun out on the highway. Truckers crudely called him the “hemorrhoid with the Polaroid.” He wrote ticket after ticket. “It brought a lot of revenue into Times Beach,” Leistner says, laughing.
She worked as a receptionist at a dental office and became a Times Beach alderwoman in 1981. The following year, in November 1982, the city clerk received a phone call from a reporter. He had acquired an official document detailing suspected dioxin sites across Missouri. Did Times Beach officials know their city was high on the list? Well, no. Russell Bliss was accused of picking up chemical waste from a plant in Verona in the early ’70s, mixing it with used motor oil from service stations, and selling the toxic elixir to horse farms, churches, and small towns as a dust suppressant. Residents started to tell stories. They remembered birds dying.
Times Beach officials called the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but it said it might be a year before it would be able to test. “We didn’t like that, because people were building new homes. Businesses were locating there,” Leistner says. “We decided that we would do it ourselves, so we started taking up a collection to pay to have our streets tested.” When the EPA got wind of that, it decided to test immediately, too.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began warning people in low-lying areas that a severe flood was coming. Some Times Beach residents evacuated, but many defiantly stayed. The bank that stood between the town and the river was steep and tall. People doubted that the water would even make it to Riverside Drive.
They were wrong.
On December 5, the river jumped its banks, and quickly, the entire town was submerged. Houses were ripped from their foundations. Trailers were tossed about like bumper boats. Flood stage was 18.5 feet, and the water crested at nearly 43 feet. It was described as a 500-year flood. Many in Times Beach were caught in their homes. Some were rescued in boats. Others drove out through the rising water, trying to follow the roads they couldn’t see. It was nearly a week before people could return to begin the daunting task of rebuilding. Only a small portion of the residents ever made it back.
A few days after it reopened, the city received the results from its soil tests. The townspeople couldn’t afford to have the results quantified, so they were given only yes-or-no answers. For both PCBs and dioxin, it was a yes. The city’s mayor, Joe Capstick, didn’t like the sound of PCBs, and he needed to look out for his family, so he resigned and left. Sid Hammer, who was chairman of the board of aldermen, became acting mayor, while Leistner became acting chairwoman.
The EPA received its own test results on December 23 and delivered a Christmas message to the citizens of Times Beach. The level of PCBs was low, not a major concern, but the dioxin was a problem. At the time, the EPA considered anything above 1 part per billion hazardous. In Times Beach, the dioxin level was more than 100 parts per billion. Those who returned were instructed to leave, and anyone who hadn’t was told to stay away. A guard and a caution sign were posted at the entrance to town, a bridge that came across from the high side of the river, to keep people out.
The city’s nearly 2,500 residents were divided about what to do next, whether to stay or to ask for a buyout of their property through the EPA’s Superfund. A majority of residents realized that there were no available methods then for cleaning up dioxin, and they didn’t see the point of rebuilding homes that had been destroyed by the flood anyway (especially since Times Beach had voted itself out of the National Flood Insurance Program a few years before). On the other side was a small but vocal group of people—Leistner estimates 50 of Times Beach’s 801 families—who argued that the dioxin wasn’t a threat. It had been there for a decade without harming them. They had rebuilt before, and they would do it again. This was home.
The dispute pitted neighbors, even relatives, against one another, eroding the city’s greatest asset, its family atmosphere. “Sid Hammer’s wife didn’t want to stay in Times Beach, but Sid didn’t see anything wrong,” Leistner says. “He wanted to stay there, so she just divorced him.” That was too much for Hammer to bear. When he resigned, Leistner became acting mayor.
She sent a petition with hundreds of signatures to President Ronald Reagan, asking for a buyout. In February 1983, Anne Gorsuch Burford, the administrator of the EPA, came to grant their wish. The whole scene was surreal. The residents gathered in front of a hotel in Eureka, crowding around the outdoor pool. The door was locked, and Burford stood in a second-floor conference room. Officials seemed to be acting as if the residents might be contagious. Using a microphone, Burford announced to the people outside that the Superfund would buy their homes at fair market value. (Burford would resign a month later, amid allegations of mismanagement of the Superfund program.)
In May, a second flood hit, a sort of aftershock, and in June, Leistner won the mayoral election, defeating a challenger who wanted to stay. That paved the way for final approval of the buyout. The first offers were made that month. “The offers were very low, so we got organized,” Leistner says. “We would invite the press out, and we would spray-paint the prices on the homes.” She has a photograph of a house with $15,800 scrawled across the siding.
Offers were based solely on square footage, which angered the owners of newer, nicer houses. There was an appeals process that could net disgruntled residents a few extra dollars. They were also eligible for relocation assistance; if their new house outside of Times Beach cost more than their settlement, the Superfund program would pay part of the difference.
As the offers improved slightly, many of the holdouts grudgingly gave in. “As these families were being made their offers, they were taking the money and running,” Leistner says. Eventually, in 1985, there was only one couple left living in the town, George and Lorene Klein. People magazine profiled their last stand. “They wanted more money,” Leistner says. “She still blames me. I didn’t set the price, but it’s my fault. She doesn’t speak to me.”
Eventually, the properties of those who didn’t take the buyout went into condemnation. Waiting proved to be a bad move. The court’s appraisals came back even lower than the EPA’s offers, and the other benefits were no longer available. “As much as I hated to see that happen to people,” Leistner says, “it was part of the contract to get the buyout going and to get all of those people out of there and in permanent homes.”
Still, all these years later, animosity persists. Many former residents wish they hadn’t been forced to leave—and think they weren’t adequately compensated when they were pushed out. “There are so many bad stories that I cheated people out of their money,” Leistner says, her tone turning sharp. “I didn’t have anything to do with their money.”
Leistner holds her own grudges. Back in 1982, she called Bliss and asked him, point-blank, whether he had sprayed Times Beach with dioxin. “I will bet you two weeks’ pay there is no dioxin on your streets,” she recalls Bliss telling her.
“Well, you know,” Leistner says now, “I’ve never collected.”
In 1971, Judy Piatt hired Bliss to spray waste oil on her horse arena, near Moscow Mills, to alleviate dust. Nobody knew it then, of course, but that oil contained massive levels of dioxin, far more than the oil sprayed at Times Beach. Within a couple of days, cats, dogs, and birds in the vicinity began to drop dead. Horses became sick, and eventually, Piatt would bury more than 50 of them. Worst of all, Piatt’s two young daughters, who played in the arena as if it were a sandbox, fell ill. Doctors and veterinarians were stumped, but Piatt suspected the spraying was to blame. She confronted Bliss, but he insisted he had used only crankcase oil. She contacted authorities, but their response came too slowly for her.
So she took matters into her own hands. She started doing amateur detective work. Using disguises and borrowed cars, she tailed Bliss and the other drivers who worked for him. In addition to the oil that he picked up at lube joints, he also hauled sludge from industrial facilities. Of particular note was a chemical plant in Verona, which had been used to produce Agent Orange and hexachlorophene, an ingredient used in soap. (The market for hexachlorophene collapsed in 1972 when baby powder made with it killed 36 infants in France.)
Bliss disposed of this waste in various ways. Some of it, he buried in drums. Some, he spread across his own farm. And some, he mixed together with oil in storage tanks in both Missouri and Illinois, before selling it as a dust suppressant. Bliss was, and remains, a clever businessman. The chemical companies paid him to take the sludge, and then he turned around and sold it to somebody else. He was making money coming and going. But eventually, it caught up with him. As a result of a lawsuit that Piatt filed against Bliss and the chemical companies, which eventually netted her family a healthy sum, Bliss was forced to admit his waste-hauling activity and identify the dozens of sites across the state where he had dumped it.
Even so, he has consistently denied having any knowledge that the materials were toxic. The chemical companies, he has always maintained, never told him exactly what he was hauling. After all, Bliss sprayed the oil on his own property, and once even claimed to have tasted it to test its strength. “If I thought it was something bad, would I spray it on my own farm where my family is?” Bliss asked CNN in 1997, in one of the few extensive interviews he’s given. (He declined to comment for this story.) “Would any human being do that?”
To be sure, Bliss views himself as a victim in all this. He’s been sued repeatedly. Even if he had known that what he was hauling was toxic, there were no laws against what he did. But he was forced to do jail time anyway, on tax-evasion charges, since he didn’t report his waste-hauling income to the IRS. “They’ve dragged me through the courts and I don’t think they’re ever gonna quit,” he told CNN. “I think it’s unfair, unjust… All my friends say that I was a scapegoat.”
These days, Bliss, who’s in his late seventies, is still finding unique ways to make a buck. He operates a roadside attraction, a classic car museum in St. James, and he travels to flea markets. This summer, Bill McClellan of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote a column about Bliss. McClellan calls Bliss an “intelligent and thoughtful man,” and he’s stayed in touch with the erstwhile waste hauler over the years. He reports that “exposure to dioxin has certainly not hurt Bliss” and that “scientists have been mixed on the dangers of dioxin,” citing a quote from the late Dr. Vernon Houk of the Centers for Disease Control, who once said that the evacuation of Times Beach was an overreaction. As McClellan points out, Houk was the person who ordered it in the first place.
A venerable columnist, McClellan hedges his bets by saying “Who knows?” about dioxin’s dangers, rather than drawing any final conclusion. But he also makes some important omissions. For one, Houk made his oft-quoted statement in the early ’90s at a convention sponsored by Syntex, the company responsible for the dioxin that Bliss dumped in Times Beach. And despite McClellan’s best efforts to engender compassion for him, Bliss remains an unsympathetic character to those affected by his actions. “Often, Bliss is portrayed as possibly a victim of circumstance,” says Steve Taylor, co-founder of the Times Beach Action Group. “I do not believe that at all. This was hazardous waste… It wasn’t milk and yogurt.”
Only Bliss actually knows how much he knew about what he was hauling. Judge him as you will. But despite what McClellan implies, scientists agree that dioxin is dangerous. The EPA and CDC have each published massive documents detailing the many health hazards associated with it.
“There are many epidemiological studies that showed health effects in humans exposed to dioxins,” says Dr. Hana Pohl, an environmental health scientist at the CDC. Exposure can cause cancer, immunodeficiency, endocrine disorders, and reproductive and developmental issues, says Dr. Arnold Schecter, a professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health and one of the world’s foremost experts on dioxin. This is especially true for 2,3,7,8–tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, which is the most toxic and the one found at Times Beach.
This is not to say there is no controversy about dioxin. Scientists disagree about how much it takes to put someone at risk. Ultimately, there is probably more than one correct answer to that question.
Schecter uses the analogy of smoking cigarettes. Most lung cancer is caused by smoking, but most people who smoke don’t get lung cancer. The more you smoke, the worse it is for your health. “That’s why just about every physician will tell his or her patient to stop smoking cigarettes,” Schecter says. “Yet we know there are people who are not sensitive, because of their lucky genetics. They could smoke four packs a day without any harm.”
But for the average person, it’s still unwise to smoke four packs a day. The same goes for rolling around in dioxin.