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Clean-up ends in toxic town

Dumping waste

June 26, 1997
Web posted at: EST ( GMT)

From Correspondent Jeff Flock

NEAR EUREKA, Missouri (CNN) -- A dumpster full of debris is all that remains of the last building left standing in Times Beach, Missouri.

What's that? You never heard of Times Beach? That's because it doesn't exist. But it does have a fascinating story.

And it begins with this man, Russell Bliss. "I had no idea," Bliss tells us in an interview at his home, "no idea at all what was in it. I still don't." Back in the 1970s Russell Bliss hauled waste oil for a living.

Russell Bliss (105K/5 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)
Transcript of Russell Bliss interview

Today, some communities with dirt roads spray water on the roads to keep the dust down. 20 years ago Bliss did what many people did: sprayed OIL on the dust. It worked better than water. The problem is, this company gave him oil laced with a little known substance called dioxin. He sprayed the suspected carcinogen at dozens of sites in Missouri, including his own farm, and created the biggest toxic waste disaster since Love Canal.

This is the first time Bliss has publicly discussed what happened. "If I thought it was something bad would I spray it on my own farm, where my family lives?" Bliss asks. "I have my wife buried here. Would any human do that? I don't think so."

Flooded houseAt about the time Times Beach was learning it had been doused with dioxin, it was doused again. The Meramec River flooded the town, spreading the poison who knew where. The twin disasters led the Federal government to buy out all two thousand residents and shutter the site, creating a toxic ghost town. Eventually it began a superfund clean-up that officially ended Thursday.

Gary Pendergrass ran the cleanup and the incinerator brought in to burn the dioxin contaminated dirt. "This site is clean," he says. "A total of 265-thousand tons of material was required to clean up all 27 sites." Now this town is just a memory.

1990 Flashback visit to Times Beach

Times Beach Today 2.3M/25 sec. QuickTime movie

VXtreme Video Report


But some ask whether the incinerating did more harm than good, spewing incinerator emissions into the environment. "They cannot, they could not, they have not proved this is safe, they can't do it," says Bill Elmore of the Times Beach Environmental Task Force. "So far as I'm concerned they've only opened the next chapter in the saga and story of Times Beach."

Keep Out

And then there are the health problems of the people exposed, like Marilyn Leistner, who used to be the mayor of Times Beach. "I've had the hyperthyroidism, I've had the muscular problem," she says. "In fact there are days when I wish I'd never heard of Times Beach or dioxin."

The US EPA reports they find "strong evidence" of the toxic effects of dioxin, and have even stronger reason to believe there are cancer and non-cancer health effects resulting from dioxin exposure.

As for Russell Bliss: he was never charged with a crime. The company that gave him the tainted oil paid for half the clean-up. But Bliss is now mired in civil lawsuits that will probably occupy him until he dies.

There has been enough suffering to go around in Times Beach...then and now which no clean-up can cure.


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