In New Book, Wildwood’s Dioxin Past Continues to Inform; A new generation grapples with hard to find truths about region’s toxic history

By Steve Taylor

It’s been decades since the controversial Times Beach, Missouri incinerator was dismantled, but the research of Times Beach Action Group (TBAG) continues to find its way into academic and trade publications.

Many Wildwood residents are too young to remember the infamous Times Beach saga of the 1980s, and the controversial incineration of dioxin and PCB-contaminated waste from 27 Eastern Missouri sites in the 1990s. TBAG’s research surrounding the Eureka-based incinerator is still being used today.

The most recent example is Mitchel Cohen’s new book, The Fight Against Monsanto’s Roundup, available through Simon and Schuster.  Although TBAG did not research Roundup or take a position in the debate surrounding it, the book uses TBAG’s research into PCBs, Dioxin, Agent Orange, Monsanto and the Missouri “dioxin” sites to give historical perspective on the producer of Roundup.

The book details the international debate about the ban of Monsanto’s glyphosphate around the globe, and one chapter includes research gathered by TBAG in the 1990’s surrounding the Eastern Missouri Dioxin Sites.

Photo: 1980s era bumper sticker popular with Times Beach residents and those at other dioxin sites.  Donated to author by last Mayor of Times Beach, Marilyn Liestner

There are several sites within the city limits of Wildwood that were contaminated in the 1970s with toxic waste, including dioxin. One site in particular, the property owned by Russell Bliss, was on the EPA’s National Priority List and is currently the subject of litigation as a potential residential development.  Russell Bliss was the waste hauler who allegedly contaminated hundreds of eastern Missouri sites in the 1970s. Property he owned in Wildwood was “ground zero” of his illicit waste-hauling operation and hundreds if not thousands of barrels of toxic waste were buried there at one time. One of Bliss’ drivers Grover Callahan, also owned property in Wildwood.

Chapter 4 of Cohen’s book notes that, “while Monsanto consistently denied any connection to the incident, the St. Louis-Based Times Beach Action Group (TBAG) uncovered laboratory reports documenting soil samples from the town. ‘From our point of view, Monsanto is at the heart of the problem here in Missouri,’ explained TBAG’s Steve Taylor in a 1998 interview.”

Excerpt from the book

Cohen acknowledges that TBAG provided evidence that the extent of possible sites was larger than recognized, and that the characterization of both the source and nature of the waste was inaccurate and (perhaps purposely) limited in scope. For TBAG, St. Louis’ Monsanto Chemical Company (recently acquired by Bayer) was suspiciously left out of the mix. A more detailed accounting of TBAG’s findings can be found in a Rachel’s Hazardous Waste report available here.

As publicly predicted by TBAG in the late 1990s, more dioxin contaminated sites were eventually found after completion of EPA’s remediation. This led a panicked EPA to threaten a $25,000 a day fine against TBAG until the organization turned over its files to the agency.  TBAG’s evidence was so compelling and the agency’s gaffs so blatant, that a report about the EPA threat was reported in the industry journal Chemical Engineering News, which rarely gives such credence to community organizations.

As Wildwood continues to live with the vestiges of the past, the next generation is now trying to fill in gaps regarding their own toxic past.

A young mother who lived near the Times Beach incinerator in the 1990s recently contacted me.  Her family home near the EPA’s staging area for the incinerator was flooded in 1993. Her family was reportedly told that they could not return because of “contamination.”

Mary (a pseudonym) is troubled by the fact that both she and her sister were recently diagnosed with the same rare form of cancer, which according to her doctors may have been environmentally triggered. Both Mary and her sister are mothers of young children, and both were diagnosed with the same rare cancer within one year of each other.

Mary has discussed her chemical exposure with her health care team, and has been assured that her concerns about environmental exposure are not unwarranted.  She has been researching old media reports, calling scientists, and recently met with me and my wife because of old news stories and editorials that mentioned TBAG. She wanted to know more about the history of dioxin- contamination in eastern Missouri.

I admire Mary’s courage to find out more about what happened decades ago and how it may have affected her health and family.  Some decades ago I also sought the truth regarding the source, nature and extent of Missouri’s dioxin contamination after learning that my family was exposed.

It is troubling to see how little publicly-available technical information exists regarding these sites.  It is disturbing that there was little to no follow medical followup with exposed populations. For my neighborhood, there was none.  Moreover, the day the EPA showed up unannounced and swept my residence in respirators and chemical protection gear, they flat out refused to identify what they were looking for.

Today, the Times Beach Visitor Center has little to say about the nature of dioxin, or any substantial history of the 28 recognized Missouri dioxin sites.  According to the state’s official history, It is a nettlesome footnote best left unread.

Mary has a serious diagnosis and wonders if she will survive this ordeal. But despite her serious health challenges, she is determined to learn the truth and to share it with others. Regardless of what you think about the toxicity of dioxin or other chemicals,  the community has a right to know what they were exposed to, where it came from, and what is still around.

Finding pieces of the puzzle was one of TBAG’s objectives years ago. Given Mary’s tenacity, I am confident she will find a few more pieces of the puzzle for us all.

Some TBAG tidbits can be found at this link.

This post first appeared at Wildwood Matters.