Toxic Town

6/26/97

Russell Bliss InterviewFor the first time Russell Bliss speaks publicly about the accident that forever changed the town of Times Beach, Missouri. Bliss was the driver of the truck that unknowingly spread dioxin on the gravel roads of the small community. We spoke to him in the shady backyard of his farm on June 25th- the same day the incinerator burned the last load of dioxin-contaminated material. Here is a portion of that interview.
Jeff Flock Russell Bliss
How do you feel about it now that it's all over? Well, it's not over with for me. It's probably over with for everybody but me. I don't think I'll live long enough for it to be over with.
Why do you say that? Because of litigation. They've dragged me through the courts and I don't think they're ever gonna quit. It think it's unfair, unjust. I'm the guy that hauled petroleum product from one point and put it another, I sprayed it on the road to keep the dust down. Some people think I just dumped it in a hole somewhere to get rid of it but I sprayed it on roads for dust control. These country roads in the summer time get real dusty. And really none of it was sprayed here. It was sprayed out on Piaza Road and it migrated into this place. We're sitting right here on a spot that was cleaned. If you'll notice how the grass changes. It was just done in December. And if you see real tall, real green grass, that's the good part and this kind of barren spot is where they didn't put no fertilizer on it.
You didn't have any idea what you were spraying? The only thing I knew I was spraying was waste oil. The people in the factory in Verona running around in cutoff shorts, a lot of them wore sandals-- there's goo on the floor this residue, and I never had the slightest idea. It'd be like you going into a restaurant and being poisoned, you wouldn't have the slightest idea if you went to Steak and Shake and think you're gonna get poisoned. And I asked them, "What do you people make here?" They made ladies' face cleanser. Would you be suspicious of oil that came out of machines that made ladies' face cleanser?
When did you first find out that something was amiss? Well, around 1976. The government sad they were told that I had hauled and removed this stuff and I really didn't think much of it because I really didn't take them seriously on the first letter. and they said there was no problem but they wanted to alert me that there was here at the farm. At many places they've tested the well, they've done this, they've done...they've tested the well here, they've taken blood out of most everybody's veins down there at Times Beach. They never tested me, they never asked to test my children, they never asked to test my wife, it was always other people. And they never tested any wells on my property, other people's wells around here. So basically, I think they've lost all concern for me. All they want to do is harass me. That's what I believe.
Are you just a convenient guy to blame it all on? Well, it would be easy for me to say yes, but in my heart that's the way I feel. I really do. It's just aggravating. All my friends say that I was a scapegoat. Whether that shall be maybe, I don't know. I want to think of the government as better than that. but I don't know. The EPA has been very unfair with me. I think, that's only my opinion, maybe they can tell you a different story.
This has been 20 years now? Yes, oh yes. Over 20 years. I sprayed it in '72.
When you see all that has happened, do you think all that's necessary? Cleaning this place twice, what they did in Times Beach? I mean, they burned every inch of soil in that town. Well, I'm not a chemist, I don't know. The only thing I can tell you is that I'm 63 years old and I can outrun any of you. And probably out dance any of you. I'm in good health. Who am I to say-- you know on the back of a Sweet 'n' Low thing it says, this product contains saccharin which has been proven to cause cancer in laboratory animals. But I can guarantee you and I don't know nothing. I use 6, 7 bags of it a day and somebody out amongst us here I bet uses Sweet 'n' Low. And it's out there on every restaurant table in the United States, so what's hazardous and what isn't? I don't know. You know they talk about hazardous things, they're getting better about it now. But look at all the people that smoke, they let kids buy cigarettes and stuff, it's been going on for years. and I know we've got to clean up the environment, I'm the first to admit that but the way they went about it was all wrong, I think. But that's just my opinion. But I'm uneducated, I didn't finish high school. It's not right for me to judge anybody. And the EPA, I met a lot of nice people, when you talk to them alone, but when you get a lot of them together, I'm the villain. But like I try to tell anybody, I never produced, generated one drop of this stuff, I only hauled it from one point to another. And I got 18,000 gallons of it, 6 loads, 3,000 gallons per load and I got approximately $150 a load and I and another man drove from St. Louis to Verona which is about 500 miles round trip, you won't get rich doing that. And that's the money I made out of it. If I made...If none of this ever happened, If I made $100 a load out of 6 loads, I was a very fortunate person, so there was no money involved in it for me. I do believe, Syntex and some other people, I believe that they knew what they were giving me, according to records and things such as that, they knew what they were giving me. I hauled it away for nothing and they were hauling it to Baton Rouge, Louisiana and paying 25 cents a gallon to dispose of it. and all of a sudden "sucker Russ" comes by and hauls it away for nothing because I thought it was motor oil. My point is, if I thought it was something bad, would I spray it on my own farm where my family is, where I have my wife buried? Would any human being do that? I don't think so. I have a boy of 40 who's lived through this whole thing. I have another boy, 25, he was born, I believe in '72. He lives here with me and I just, no matter how good or how bad you are, you're not going to hurt your family. And I had no idea, absolutely no idea at all what was in it. I still don't really know, only what's been told to me.
For that reason, I can imagine, do you feel bad, I mean, given what's happened? I feel bad because I wish they would've told me what it was because if they would've told me what it was, even if I would have hauled it, I would've took it to refinery, they would've run it through a filter, then I would've taken it to a steel mill, in Illinois, and burned it to melt steel. and it would've been gone the next day. Gone up in smoke, and none of this would've happened, but I was never told. See, a lot of people don't fully understand. I was hauling about 15,000 gallons of waste oil a day and all this stuff was spread because I didn't know what it was. I put it in my tanks, it go to the bottom, it go to the top, and I pull all of it out now. Business at the time was selling oil to refineries, to make heavy industrial fuel oil to melt steel and steel foundries. If I would've known what it was, even had the slightest indication, it would've' gone to the steel mills, then it would've been burnt, and then it would've been gone. But to prove my fact that I didn't know what it was, why wouldn't I put good oil on my farm, why would I have put contaminated oil on my own farm, where I live? If people don't understand that, then I don't think they're too smart.
You've said your peace to some degree, but in terms of how your life has changed in the last 25 years, what would you say to people out there? Is there something you would like to say to them? Basically, they ruined my life financially, I can't own anything, I can't have anything and I was a successful businessman until this came along. It made it hard on my son, they're still making it hard on my son, they're suing him, they're bothering him, and at the time he was a teenager. Now how can they hold him responsible for something his father did?  And I'm telling you the truth, they are suing him. He is supposed to go to court the 9th, 10th and 11th of July in St. Louis.
So it doesn't end? No. I don't know if it'll end in my day. The only thing that I pray to God in heaven is that someday my children do not have to suffer for what their father did accidentally. I don't know if I'll live that long. I'm hoping that I'll see an end to it someday but the litigation people, I don't know if they got anybody else to prosecute or torment but it just seems like they're on me all the time. I've gotten stuff in the mail for 20 years. I could take you in my basement. You couldn't get all the literature, court documentation things, you couldn't get them in two pick-up trucks. It'd take a dump truck to put it all in, that I've saved through the years. And I 'll throw half of it away and still got that much left. Anyway, it just mind boggles me.

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