The Legacy of an Unnatural Disaster

The dioxin-laced land of Times Beach, Mo., is almost 'clean.' Is it a Superfund success or a case study of the law's problems?

Traveling Interstate 44 west of St. Louis, an uninformed motorist could drive by this site without a thought. From the highway, the 500-acre swath of floodplain along the Meramec River looks like nothing more than open space, home only to deer, coyotes, and other wildlife.

There's no sign of what it really is - a national symbol of manmade disaster. Nearly 15 years ago, residents here were forced out of their homes because the land was contaminated with dioxin, a toxic chemical.

Thus began a human drama that put Times Beach, along with New York's Love Canal, at the center of nationwide debate over cleanup of the detritus of the Industrial Age.

Today, the only sign of the dangers of chemical contamination is a massive incinerator, which sits out of sight of the highway. Next month, the leggy silver monster will burn the last of 200,000 tons of dioxin-contaminated debris. Then the state will turn the land into a public park with hiking and biking trails and access to the river.

Government regulators are calling Times Beach a much-needed success story for the federal Superfund law that it helped inspire.

The fact that we've been able to bring the site back to usable condition "shows that Superfund can work in spite of its critics," says David Shorr, director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

Environmentalists and opponents of the Times Beach incinerator disagree. "It has not been a success by any stretch of the imagination," says Fred Striley, a member of the Times Beach Monitoring Committee, a local group formed to oversee activities at the site. "If this is any kind of a model for what they want to do, then Congress ought to shut them down."

The story of Times Beach began in the early 1970s when dioxin-laced oil was spread on the town's unpaved roads to control dust. After hints of health hazards associated with dioxin, the federal government bought out the 2,200 residents in 1983.

How best to clean up the mess?

Ever since the evacuation, former residents, neighbors, and government agencies have debated and litigated about how best to clean up the area. The final decision to burn the contaminated material left many neighboring residents concerned about the health effects of the incinerator emissions.

Environmental Protection Agency standards require that the incinerator destroy 99.9999 percent of the dioxin. "There's no question in my mind that it's safe," Mr. Shorr says.

"They are actually destroying a lot of it," Mr. Striley acknowledges. "The question is whether the amount that is coming out and going all over the place is dangerous."

Despite the protests, county ordinances, lawsuits, and petitions, the incineration finally got under way last year. "There was no discernible increase in airborne contaminants as the result of the operation of the incinerator," says Robert Feild, project manager for the Environmental Protection Agency, which has been monitoring air quality around Times Beach.

24-hour-a-day project

By the time the project is complete next month, the incinerator will have burned 40 tons of contaminated material per hour, 24 hours a day for more than a year.

The volume of waste dictated the decision to incinerate rather than bury the contaminated material or store it until a closed-system technology is perfected, Shorr says.

In fact, 26 smaller sites in eastern Missouri are included in the Times Beach cleanup effort. The cost is estimated at well over $100 million. Syntex Agribusiness, which was found liable for the contamination, is shouldering the financial burden.

Under the Superfund law, the government can go back as far as necessary to find a someone capable of paying the cleanup bill. "We had leased space to the company that produced the dioxin. So that left us holding the bag," says Gary Pendergrass, who is coordinating the cleanup for Syntex.

Under a 1990 agreement between the company and federal and state officials, Syntex is paying to clean up Times Beach in exchange for the EPA paying the costs of cleaning the other sites.

Despite that agreement, it took six years before the incineration process began. "A lot of the time was taken up in public discussion and ironing out the responsible parties through the legal process," Shorr says.

Although he views that as important, Shorr has concerns about the delays. By the time the incineration project winds down next month, 25 years will have passed since the contamination took place. Times Beach will have sat vacant for nearly 15 years. "It is difficult to rationalize how long and difficult this has been in terms of time," Shorr says. "During the whole period, you've got a stigma on a community that continues to sit there for years and years and years. That's an impact on people's welfare that is not calculated."

Some view the evacuation of Times Beach as an overreaction. "Times Beach is an example of an agency grabbing some very flimsy evidence and running with it," says Sam Kazman, general counsel for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

One of the officials involved in the original decision to evacuate the town later said the move may have been unnecessary. The EPA has been conducting a reevaluation of the dangers of dioxin. "On the basis of the current information that's available, we still believe that the decision to relocate Times Beach [residents] was fully justified," Mr. Feild says.

Superfund success story?

As Congress debates the future of Superfund, Feild expects that Times Beach will be one of several projects used as examples of the law's effectiveness.

Opponents, such as Striley, say this explains why officials made every effort to squelch criticism of the Times Beach project. "The EPA has a political problem with Superfund sites," he says. "They've gotten very few of them actually cleaned up. So they want to be able to say that they've finally successfully cleaned up a big one that is nationally known."

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