Dioxin Contamination Forces Evacuation of Times Beach

The discovery of high levels of dioxin, a toxic chemical, forced the evacuation of a small Missouri town. In the aftermath of the incident, the news media and state and federal officials accused the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of having responded sluggishly to the disaster.

Summary of Event

Times Beach was a small community near the Meramec River in southeastern Missouri. The town occupied 413 acres of bottomland in an area with a long history of flooding. Located about twenty-five miles southwest of St. Louis, the town dated back to the mid-1920’s, when it was widely promoted as a summer resort. By 1982, Times Beach had 769 permanent households; half of the homes were fixed structures, the other half were mobile homes. Dioxins
Times Beach, Missouri;dioxin contamination
Disasters;chemical contamination
Ecological disasters
[kw]Dioxin Contamination Forces Evacuation of Times Beach (Dec. 23, 1982)
[kw]Contamination Forces Evacuation of Times Beach, Dioxin (Dec. 23, 1982)
[kw]Evacuation of Times Beach, Dioxin Contamination Forces (Dec. 23, 1982)
[kw]Times Beach, Dioxin Contamination Forces Evacuation of (Dec. 23, 1982)
Times Beach, Missouri;dioxin contamination
Disasters;chemical contamination
Ecological disasters
[g]North America;Dec. 23, 1982: Dioxin Contamination Forces Evacuation of Times Beach[05040]
[g]United States;Dec. 23, 1982: Dioxin Contamination Forces Evacuation of Times Beach[05040]
[c]Disasters;Dec. 23, 1982: Dioxin Contamination Forces Evacuation of Times Beach[05040]
[c]Environmental issues;Dec. 23, 1982: Dioxin Contamination Forces Evacuation of Times Beach[05040]
Bliss, Russell
Piatt, Judy
Hampel, Frank
Cray, Charles
Pryor, R. Roger
Nangle, John
Ashcroft, John

In 1970 and 1971, Syntex Agribusiness Syntex Agribusiness owned a chemical processing plant, Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Company Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Company (Nepacco), in Verona, Missouri. The plant produced a disinfectant, hexachlorophene; dioxin, a highly toxic chemical, was a by-product of the manufacturing process.

In September, 1972, and in October of the following year, the city government of Times Beach hired Russell Bliss to spray the town’s unpaved roads to control the dust created by summer heat. At the time, Bliss was also under contract with Independent Petrochemical Company Independent Petrochemical Company (IPC), a firm hired by Nepacco Nepacco to dispose of its chemical wastes. Toxic waste Bliss hauled these wastes to a storage facility in Frontermac, Missouri, where they were mixed with other chemicals. Some of this material was sold to refineries as waste oil, but much of it was applied to the roads and parking lots of Times Beach. Bliss sprayed every summer from 1972 to 1976, for which the town paid him forty-two hundred dollars.

Two citizens of Lincoln County, Missouri, Judy Piatt and Frank Hampel, monitored Bliss’s activities for fifteen months. Late in 1972, they sent a list of sites contaminated by Bliss to the authorities, alleging, among other things, that the spraying of stables in Lincoln County had killed forty-eight horses.

On October 27, 1982, a list of fifty-five confirmed and suspected dioxin sites was made public by the Environmental Defense Fund Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. On November 30, 1982, the Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Protection Agency;Times Beach dioxin contamination (EPA) discovered varying amounts of dioxin in soil samples taken at right-of-ways and crossroads in Times Beach. Traces of dioxin were also discovered in Minker, Stout, Sullins, Quail Run, and Castlewood. Almost overnight, Times Beach and the dioxin-contaminated communities located nearby became international news.

A week after the EPA had completed its investigation, the Meramec River rose to flood levels, and Times Beach was inundated. On December 23, 1982, the Missouri Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control recommended that the town be evacuated. Times Beach held its last Christmas party a few days before the evacuation began. After Times Beach was depopulated, state and federal government officials made provisions to purchase the town. On February 22, 1983, $36 million was allocated for this purpose; the EPA was the major contributor.

A state task force was formed to address the problem of containing the dioxin-tainted soil prior to its eventual destruction. On October 31, 1983, the task force concluded that a bunker should be built in Times Beach to contain the soil. The decision sparked a storm of protest over the effect such a facility would have on the drinking water of uncontaminated areas should the Meramec flood again. The protests continued through mid-1984 and were ultimately successful in defeating plans to build the bunker.

In April, 1985, Times Beach was officially discorporated; it had already become a ghost town by August of 1984. Methods for eliminating the dioxin were tested by various companies and research organizations interested in or with a financial stake in the matter. After months ofexperimentation, the EPA decided that incineration would be the best method for disposing of the contaminated material and that a facility would be constructed for that purpose in Times Beach.

Announcement of the EPA decision on September 28, 1988, aroused renewed protests over the issue of drinking water contamination and the likelihood that Times Beach would become a dioxin dumping ground for corporations across the country. In an advisory referendum in November, 1990, the citizens of St. Louis County voted the plan down.

Environmentalists had become deeply involved in the controversy. Charles Cray of the international environmental activist organization Greenpeace Greenpeace distrusted the EPA solution. He pointed out that dioxin incineration was not a proven technology and suggested that the contaminated material be stored until a safe disposal method was found. R. Roger Pryor, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, Missouri Coalition for the Environment was also skeptical of dioxin incineration and recommended careful monitoring of the situation until all the safety issues were addressed.

On July 20, 1990, the EPA nevertheless announced an agreement that required Syntex Agribusiness to clean up the pollution in Times Beach and to build and operate a temporary facility to incinerate the material. The cost of this undertaking was projected at $100 million, and it was projected to take about ten years to complete. The decision was reached after a lawsuit had been brought against Syntex and other companies involved in the Times Beach disaster in August, 1988. The suit listed a total of twenty-seven dioxin-contaminated sites in St. Louis (both the city and county) and the Missouri counties of Jefferson, Franklin, Lincoln, Callaway, and Phelps. The decision was approved by U.S. District Judge John Nangle and endorsed by Missouri’s governor, John Ashcroft.

The project involved incinerating 13,600 tons of dioxin-contaminated soil at the site. Once that was accomplished, the land on which Times Beach had once stood was to become a “green space,” an undeveloped area set aside for recreation.


Dioxin is one of the most dangerous known substances. One drop in thousands of gallons of water is enough to make the water unsafe for drinking. The long-range effects of secondary dioxin exposure long remained a matter of controversy, but at that time the EPA considered the substance a likely cause of cancer in humans. It had been proven to cause cancer in animals. Dioxin was also linked to a skin condition called chloracne and to ailments of the kidney, liver, bladder, and nervous system, and exposure to the chemical was known to lead to chromosomal damage.

The ultimate ramifications of the dioxin contamination in Times Beach were unknown in the 1990’s. As early as 1974, the Centers for Disease Control had discovered at least ten cases in which dioxin was shown to have injured the health of people living in Missouri. In Times Beach itself, the incidences of kidney cancer, unexplained seizures, miscarriages, and crib deaths had been uncommonly high years before the 1982 flood. Hundreds of domestic animals suffered deaths directly attributable to dioxin exposures; the impact on wild animal populations in the state was not known.

The most immediate effects on Times Beach were economic and emotional. The disaster represented high financial losses for the people who lived there. Many houses, businesses, and mobile homes had been totally destroyed by the flood. Even so, some of the residents preferred to risk dioxin exposure rather than rebuild their homes in a new place.

Those who left willingly also faced uncertain futures. In 1980, Times Beach had voted itself out of the national flood insurance program because the citizens considered the federal regulations governing the program too rigid. When the EPA bought the town, the residents received between $8,800 and $98,000 for their properties. Those who would not have been reimbursed for flood damage profited from the deal, but for most the money was small compensation for the loss of their homes.

In the aftermath of the Times Beach disaster, the EPA was accused by the media and state and federal officials of having responded sluggishly to the disaster. These accusations exacerbated a crisis within the organization. In the early 1980’s, there were continuing allegations of incompetence and the misuse of funds. By 1983, Congress began to investigate the agency’s policies on pesticides and water pollution and the relationships between EPA scientists and waste-producing manufacturers. That same year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) launched its own investigation into the way in which the agency used money allocated for the elimination of toxic waste; in February, 1983, an anonymous source within the EPA accused the agency of being lax in its regulation of cancer-causing materials.

After the evacuation of Times Beach, EPA and other environmental organizations became more involved in dioxin research. Times Beach itself became the site of much of this activity. In the early 1990’s, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources leased plots of land in the city to organizations interested in dioxin containment, detoxification, and destruction. In 1994, several alternatives to outright incineration were considered, including thermal treatment and biological degradation.

Because of Times Beach and similar incidents throughout the world, many environmental agencies took a fresh look at dioxin. In July, 1993, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health presented the findings of a 1981 study to an environmental subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives. The study showed that workers exposed to chemicals tainted with dioxin had developed soft-tissue sarcoma (a form of cancer) more frequently than workers who had not been exposed. Other studies showed similar results, and international symposiums on dioxin eventually helped researchers grasp the global consequences of toxic-waste mismanagement.

Another positive repercussion of the Times Beach disaster was the public attention it drew to the problem of toxic-waste disposal and containment. The issue was discussed on television and in popular magazines such as Life, Time, and Newsweek. The existence of other chemically contaminated towns such as Holbrook, Massachusetts, and Casmalia, California, was exposed, and environmental awareness dramatically increased in the United States in the years following the Times Beach disaster. Dioxins
Times Beach, Missouri;dioxin contamination
Disasters;chemical contamination
Ecological disasters

Further Reading

  • Andersen, Kurt. “Living Dangerously with Toxic Waste.” Time, October 14, 1985, 86-90. Presents detailed discussion of three chemically contaminated towns: Times Beach, Missouri; Holbrook, Massachusetts; and Casmalia, California. Vividly describes each town and its displaced people.
  • Barnett, Harold C. Toxic Debts and the Superfund Dilemma. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994. Argues that Superfund has failed essentially because of the conflict between economic and environmental interests.
  • Edelstein, Michael R. Contaminated Communities: Coping with Residential Toxic Exposure. Rev. ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2004. Well-researched work examines the psychological impact of toxic contamination. Recommended.
  • Garmon, Linda. “Dioxin Digest.” Science News 123 (April 23, 1983): 270. One of a series of articles discussing the dioxin controversy. Includes references to the incident in Times Beach and to other dioxin sites across the country and reviews dioxin-related legislation then being considered.
  • Gibbs, Lois Marie. Dying from Dioxin: A Citizen’s Guide to Reclaiming Our Health and Rebuilding Democracy. Boston: South End Press, 1995. The author, who mobilized a grassroots response to the pollution at Love Canal and founded Citizens’ Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, writes of the detrimental effects of dioxin and dedicates part 2 of the book to organizing. The work includes appendixes and some discussion of the Times Beach incident.
  • Kronewetter, Michael. Managing Toxic Wastes. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Messner, 1989. Well-organized overview of the toxic-waste problem in the United States. Illustrated, with index and bibliography.
  • Mason, Jan. “The Ordeal of a Poisoned Town.” Life 6 (May, 1983): 58-62. Description of the events leading up to the Times Beach disaster and interviews with residents as they prepared to leave. Includes photos.
  • Posner, Michael. “Anatomy of a Missouri Nightmare.” MacLean’s 96 (April 4, 1983): 10. Account of the city’s evolution from a seasonal resort to a weed-choked ghost town. Posner warns that the disaster at Times Beach is only the prelude to other dioxin-related disasters.
  • Richman, Alan. “Last Stand at Times Beach.” People 26 (July 1, 1985): 28-32. George and Ida Lorene Klien were the last to abandon Times Beach in the wake of river flooding and the discovery of the chemical contamination of the city. The article describes their last days in the dioxin-doomed community.

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