Gray Summit, Mo. — A new chain-link fence, topped by three rows of barbed wire, now rings the Quail Run mobile-home park just north of this town. ''You feel as if you're visiting a concentration camp,'' says one resident. Both here and in nearby Times Beach, where a cement barricade blocks the bridge entrance to town, round-the-clock armed guards log the names of everyone entering and leaving.
Why all the security? To cordon off an area contaminated by a highly toxic synthetic compound called dioxin, which can neither be seen nor smelled.
The physical barriers stand as a sharp reminder that finding hazardous waste and knowing precisely what to do with it are two very different things.
Missouri hopes to take the national lead in finding solutions to the dioxin problem, which several states face. But for the moment, no one here seems to know what to do with the toxic waste once they find it.
Significant traces of dioxin, a byproduct of herbicide and germicide manufacturing once produced in 28 facilities around the country, have been found at the former Newark, N.J., site of a company that manufactured Agent Orange. It was also discovered in the waste water discharged by a Michigan Dow Chemical Company plant.
But no state has come close to matching Missouri's record in the geographical spread and amounts of dioxin found so far. Thirty-one sites have been confirmed, including the residential areas of Quail Run and Times Beach, where the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has urged evacuation. Soils in at least another 80 locations are being tested.
Virtually all of Missouri's dioxin was produced by a herbicide company in the southwestern part of the state. It was largely distributed in the early 1970s by one hauler, who mixed it with waste oil and sprayed it over a broad variety of streets, parking lots, and horse arenas to keep the dust down.
The University of Missouri's 26-member Hazardous Waste Research Group urges that the dioxin-tainted soil be left in place and moved only if the chemical compound is in imminent danger of spreading.
''Actually, if it gets picked up, I don't think anybody would let it be put down,'' says John J. O'Connor, chairman of the Civil Engineering Department, who heads up the University of Missouri group.
A special 10-member dioxin task force led by Missouri Republican Gov. Christopher S. (Kit) Bond, which has been holding public hearings on the subject , recommends setting up a central state facility to store or burn dioxin and other hazardous waste.
Unknown as yet is whether or not the dioxin, with the possible addition of microorganisms to speed up the process, could detoxify on its own. If not, it probably will have to be burned or extracted from the soil.
''We're not prepared to select a technology yet,'' said Missouri Department of Natural Resources director Fred Lafser in an interview just outside the governor's office, where his task force frequently confers these days. ''There are no quick answers.''
The people of Times Beach, Quail Run, and the south St. Louis suburb of Imperial are convinced of that. For them, the dioxin experience has been largely a waiting game. The EPA in February announced a plan to buy up homes and businesses in Times Beach, where two floods in the last six months from the Meramec River have compounded the problem, with the help of $33 million from the
This week the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which will conduct the buyout of Times Beach and of 11 homes in Imperial, said it would begin the search for property titles. But some residents are skeptical that all the property owners will be found (a condition of the state's taking title to the property) or that they will be paid a fair price for what the government takes.
''We want the right to refuse an offer if it doesn't replace our home,'' insists Mrs. Willow Johnson of Times Beach, whose family is one of about 14 of the original 800 or so that chose to stay on in what is now largely a ghost town of dusty streets. Sipping a cold drink in her backyard where a thin layer of mud from recent floods coats everything in sight, she says she may very well decide to stay on. ''We've been living here 11 years and have six children who were born here - it's simply 'home' to us and we like it.''
Mobile-home owners in Quail Run, who were urged to evacuate only in mid-May, are in even more of a quandary as to what, if anything, Washington intends to do about their property. The federal government is paying the rent of those who have left, but has made no buyout offers.
''I can't afford to up and leave,'' says resident Kim Johnston. ''The government would pay my lodging for six months, but what about my cat and plants and eating costs? They either better buy us out or clean it up.''
''We've all learned to be very patient,'' says Gary Cross, manager and owner of the Quail Run site.
Washington is, of course, wary of getting deeper into the buyout precedent. After announcing the Times Beach buyout, EPA officials admitted they could not legally hold title to the property and that the state would have to take it on.
''It was almost like an afterthought,'' recalls Missouri's Fred Lafser. ''We were in the position of suddenly having to implement their game, with no commitment from them that they were going to come back and clean it up.''
The Missouri legislature agreed to pay 10 percent of the buyout costs and is in the process of setting up its own state Superfund to serve in future environmental emergencies. Though legal snags and bureaucratic confusion in Missouri's dioxin experience have been ample, the hope here is that it may serve as a reminder to other states to think and plan ahead concerning such invisible hazardous waste problems.