More than a decade after it was wiped off the map, Times Beach is more than just a bad memory. A battle is brewing over what to do with the very stuff that doomed the town--its dioxin-tainted soil.
The company that is responsible for the cleanup wants to incinerate it; some nearby residents are resisting.
After a forthcoming series of public hearings, Syntex Agribusiness Technologies hopes to bring in a huge, portable incinerator to burn 130,000 tons of contaminated soil from Times Beach and 26 other Missouri sites.
The dirt would be burned at a rate of 30 tons per hour, 24 hours a day. The process is estimated to cost $118 million and take a year or less.
Gary Pendergrass, coordinator of the Times Beach cleanup for Syntex, said incineration "is the only proven means to eliminate the dioxin."
"All of it will be (eliminated) and no longer pose a threat," he said.
"Thermal treatment is effective and can be performed safely," said Bob Fields of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, known to colleagues as "Mr. Times Beach" because of his involvement in the project since 1983.
But they have not convinced Fred Striley or his Dioxin Incineration Response Group, which has sponsored a petition drive and informational meetings in opposition to the incineration.
Striley, who lives in Eureka, four miles west of what used to be Times Beach, contends the incinerator will blow dioxin residue all over St. Louis County and particularly the southwest portion of the county.
"I'm convinced it's dangerous," he said.
"They know that incinerators do emit a lot of toxics, and public health is endangered by the toxics. They know it's not safe."
This is not a surprising attitude; distrust is just as much a legacy of Times Beach as the contaminated dirt.
There isn't much left of Times Beach. Barricades encircle the land where the town once stood. Most of the town's 800 homes, shops, restaurants and churches have been leveled. Tall grass and weeds grow in yards where children once played. Levees keep the tainted soil from the nearby Meramec River.
Once, former resident Kathy Sharp recalled, this was "a great place to have children, the kind of place you don't worry about locking your doors or letting the kids play outside."
But in the early 1970s, the town hired local waste-hauler Russell Bliss to spray its ballpark and gravel roads to control dust. In 1982, Times Beach turned up on a list of cities suspected of dioxin contamination; it turns out the oil that had been sprayed contained the chemical.
Dioxin is associated with a range of health problems, including cancer. It's a byproduct of incineration of solid, medical and hazardous waste, and of the bleaching process used by the paper and pulp industry. It's also a byproduct created in the manufacture of Agent Orange, used as a defoliant during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Former Mayor Marilyn Leistner said the EPA has determined dioxin is safe at 1 part per billion; at Times Beach, the level was 1,200 parts per billion.
In 1983, the government bought out the town. Times Beach ceased to exist.
But the soil remained, and Syntex decided that incineration was the answer. Syntex's Pendergrass said that contaminated soil is dried and heated, with dioxin and other contaminants driven off as gases. The gases then enter a combustion chamber, where the dioxin is destroyed at a high temperature. After the gases are cleaned, they are released. Remaining ashes are cooled and stored for testing. Once safe, the ashes will be buried at Times Beach.
Fields said the EPA will perform test burns before the dioxin itself is burned. After incineration of dioxin begins, the EPA and Missouri Department of Natural Resources will monitor the project, he said.
But Striley maintains the test burns are fixed to ensure the incineration can go on. Pendergrass disagreed, saying the test burn "is certainly not a less stringent test--it's a more stringent test."
Striley said there are other options to incineration. One method adds baking soda to the contaminated soil, which dechlorinates the material, making it safer to burn. Or the dioxin could be stored in bunkers protected by the levee system already in place.
Eureka Mayor Barney Nelson said he opposes incineration, but has given up the fight.
"That incinerator won't be there by my choosing," he said. "I now and would always favor storage in some type of bunker. But the federal government is going ahead with this project.
"We need to get this behind us. It has been a weight on our back for years and years. Once it's gone, we can go back to normal."