Why it took so long to warn Times Beach about dioxin

It's being called the most serious hazardous waste dilemma since Love Canal. And the more than 2,000 residents of Times Beach, Mo., where the highly toxic chemical dioxin has been found clinging to soil particles, have had little choice but to be patient while experts try to determine the degree of danger, if any, they actually face.

Times Beach, just south of St. Louis, was hit by a devastating flood in early December. Federal health authorities warned evacuees that dioxin levels in soil samples taken from the town in November (but analyzed only in late December) were high enough that no one should move back until more facts were known. Though more recent tests of flood debris detected no dioxin, the situation remains on hold.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is still testing some 100 soil samples taken from Times Beach and investigating 83 other possible dioxin sites in the state. Results aren't expected to be announced before February. Small quantities of dioxin are considered hazardous to animals. But the effects of the chemical on humans are far less clear.

Residents and environmentalists wonder why it took the EPA so long to check out the problem and why Times Beach didn't receive an earlier alert as to the danger.

Spokesmen in the EPA's Kansas City office once said there was no good reason for the time gap.

But spokesman William Landis now says the reason was twofold. He says Missouri officials held the primary responsibility for checking out the charges until the EPA was given authority under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and money under the ''superfund.'' Also, he says, Missouri authorities and the EPA believed until recently that dioxin would break down naturally within two years.

A new federal task force and Missouri Gov. Christopher Bond's recent bid to state legislators for a state superfund are helping to restore residents' faith that a solution is coming. For the moment, however, they have no choice but to wait.

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