Thursday 23rd December 1982
Residents of Times Beach, Missouri, US were informed that had to evacuate and that their town would be demolished after it had become contaminated when the chemical dioxin was sprayed on its unpaved roads. By February, the federal and state governments had spent $36 million to buy every house in town except one (its owners, lifelong residents of Times Beach, refused to sell). In 1985, the city was officially disincorporated.
In 1972, the town didn’t have the funds to properly pave their dusty dirt roads, so they struck up a deal with local waste hauler Russell Bliss to glue the dust to the ground with motor oil at a cost of six cents a gallon.Russell Bliss was confident that his motor oil technique would work because he’d used it at nearby stables and around his own home before that, as Robert Emmet Hernan writes in This Borrowed Earth: Lessons from the Fifteen Worst Environmental Disasters around the World. Bliss’s oil was free for him, since he had mixed one tankload of it with six truckloads of waste material from a chemical manufacturer, which had paid him to get rid of their waste. This chemical manufacturer made its money manufacturing Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Their waste turned out to be hexachlorophene tainted with dioxin, a kind of toxin dubbed “the most potent cancer-causing agent made by man,” by a paper in the following years. The first casualties were 62 horses that died in 1971 in stables that had been sprayed with Bliss’ mixture. Bliss claimed he’d only used motor oil, but local officials got the EPA to start an investigation anyway, St. Louis Magazine reports. By 1979, the EPA had identified where Bliss got his waste, and they also found that the company had been disposing of dioxin. It was that year that the EPA came around to Times Beach, started testing its ground, and found dioxin. In 1982, the EPA announced its findings that dioxin levels in Times Beach were off the charts. Panic hit the town, and then the nationwide papers. President Reagan formed a dioxin task force and over the next three years the government bought up the whole town (save for one stubborn elderly couple who refused to sell) and evacuated everyone.In 1996 and 1997, the government gathered and finally incinerated 240,000 tons of the toxic dirt. The whole cleanup cost the EPA $250 million.Times Beach remains the largest civilian exposure to dioxin in the US and one of its strangest stories of localized environmental disasters we’ve ever had.