So where does Times Beach come in?
By now you should know that I have a minor affliction for abandoned places. Having a place that I once called home turn into an abandoned zone was the beginning, but my fascination still runs deep. Someday, I hope to visit Pripyat, Ukraine. Photographing abandoned farmhouses leaves me with a bittersweet fascination of the home’s history. All of these places do not have a happy ending, Times Beach, Missouri, included. It’s never a ‘happy’ ending when people are forced from their homes due to an ugly situation, and Times Beach was in a very nasty situation indeed. However, the ending for Times Beach, known today as Route 66 State Park, is better than for most stories of abandoned places.
Lately I have been strangely fascinated with this place I had forgotten about for almost 13 years, but recently stumbled upon again.
The Times Beach Disaster story is now outdated. If you want to read more, here is the Times Beach Story as told by the last official mayor of Times Bea ch, Marilyn Leistner (I would love to meet her if she is still around). The EPA has some interesting reads, and of course there’s the Wiki link.
The town of Times Beach’s dirt roads was contaminated with dioxin in 1972-1976. Dioxin is a toxin that that is considered harmful at one part per billion. The dioxin’s origins came from a chemical company called NEPACCO, who payed a wastehauler named Russell Bliss to take away industrial waste from its chemical plant. Bliss also had a business of using waste-oil to spray on the dirt roads as a method of keeping down the dust layers. Times Beach and other places in Missouri had contracted Bliss to spray their roads with oil. Dioxin-laced waste from NEPACCO was concluded to be part of the waste oil used on the roads of Times Beach and 27 other sites Mr. Bliss sprayed. Bliss later testified that he did not know there was anything hazardous about the waste he received from NEPACCO, thus somehow mixing it wth oil used for the dirt roads. The death of a large number of horses in a stable did aroused suspicion of the oil’s origins. Once it was traced to NEPACCO, the EPA was called out to test the soil in Times Beach. In 1982, ten years after the spraying began, the town’s soils was identified as having dangerous levels of dioxin. Ironically, the town was already abandoned when the EPA announced its findings. A major flood of the nearby Meramec river had engulfed Times Beach at the exact timing of the public announcement of the dioxin. The EPA’s statements put this small town in St. Louis County in national headlines. In 1983, the EPA had begun a buyout of the town and established its system of hazardous waste site handling now known as ‘Superfund Sites.’
What I remember most about Times Beach is the giant incenerator that was built by the EPA off higwhay 44 and the trucks from the other affected Missouri sites hauling toxic waste to it. The EPA determined that the best way to destroy the dioxin was to incenerate soil and other contaminated debris in a giant kiln. The controversal incenerator and its billowing plume of smoke was a permanent fixture along the highway for almost two years, from 1996-1997. Those years, I was traveling nearly every weekend down highway 44, passing the defunct town of Times Beach and its incenerator. Part of the EPA’s hired army of covered trucks roared with me down one particular Missouri backroad I took on my way to visit family. I soon learned that those trucks were coming to and from a farm (likely Bliss) where toxic waste had been stored since the ’70s. Two trucks would come through in opposite directions about every thirty minutes, the time it took from the farm to the incenerator. Those two trucks drove past rural neighborhoods and farmhouses from sun up to sun down, every day, every half hour, in an orchestrated operation that lasted months. That is how much toxic waste was buried on one farm.
After the inceneration of the soil, destruction and disposal of nearly every home and building, and testing to make sure the area is safe, the EPA handed over Times Beach to the state. Around 1999, the area formerly known as Times Beach became Route 66 state park. One building that existed from the town and used as an EPA operations site lives on as a Route 66 Visitors center. The park today is safe, beautiful, and eerily much like Carrollton as it is today. In the Route 66 Park, one can see where trees were planted, guess at where houses once stood and still see where roads were once laid. There is something about that park that speaks, “People used to live here. I was once loved. I still am loved.” The fact that the park is in St. Louis County and right off of highway 44 makes it very accessible to urban residents, but it is just far out enough that it was once considered out in the ‘boonies. The Beach part of the former town’s name is indication that there is water, as in the Meramec River. Missouri is fortunate to have such an abundance of streams and waterways, and we are further lucky to have a place in the St. Louis region to experience such a beautiful, natural setting. No toxic waste, no dead animals, just a thriving, beautiful park with a name that doesn’t link it to a sordid, toxic past.
Carrollton and Times Beach has its parallels, but far more differences. I do know that the former residents of Times Beach ranged from mainly working class, middle class to almost impoverished… Carrollton didn’t see much of the poverty, but did have its share of lower working class to middle class residents. Like many of the Carrollton residents, many were originally offered a buyout that was far below a livable price for their home. The EPA did come back with higher payments for the buyout, unlike Lambert. And unlike the Lambert buyout, the residents of Times Beach, frightened, confused, and already out of a home thanks to extensive flooding, were nearly unanimous for wanting their buyout (one elderly couple remained). Many of the people of Times Beach were shunned in their new neighborhoods as people were scared that the dioxin was contagious. Many still live in fear that the dioxin has done damage to their health, though there is some controversy about the extent of how harmful dioxin is to humans (see Wikipedia link). The former Carrollton residents at least do not have to live with that fear.
Carrollton may not become a State park as Times Beach has. However, any state park is an important natural resource for the residents. If Carrollton can’t or won’t become one, then its time to befriend the sister towns that did end in peace. Go for a drive this fall when the leaves change and see Route 66 State park for yourself. Celebrate what we do have, and hope for the better or Carrollton, be it a nature preserve or a place for people to work.
(some random personal side note) Silo X, a haunted house that used to be in Fenton off 44 was awesome! I used to go there as a kid during the Halloween season and had a blast. I finally get the whole ‘hazardous waste’ theme… it was in close proximity to Times Beach, and open during the later years of the dioxin scare! : ) Duh!