Marilyn Leistner, the last mayor of Times Beach, gazed at a grass-covered mound, the size of four football fields, where the remains of her town are buried.
“Everything that was near and dear to the people in this community. All the houses and the city equipment. Everything that they didn't take with them that was left in their homes is buried here,” she said, softly.
The “town mound” isn’t in the brochures, but it is the most unusual landmark at Route 66 State Park, which opened 20 years ago on the site of Times Beach.
The park is next to the Meramec River, just off Interstate 44 about 17 miles southwest of St. Louis. The creation of the 400-acre park was the final chapter of an environmental disaster that destroyed Leistner’s close-knit community of 2,000 people.
Times Beach made national headlines in December 1982 when state and federal health officials declared the town uninhabitable because its unpaved roadways were polluted with dioxin, a toxic chemical.
In February 1983, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a buyout of Times Beach. Structures were bulldozed and buried. The contaminated soil was scooped up and incinerated. The cleanup took 14 years and cost $110 million.
Hundreds of homes are in the landfill, plus four churches, assorted businesses — even the Times Beach water tower, Leistner said. She would like to see a plaque placed at the mound to commemorate the town and its history.
Leistner, 81, believes it’s her duty to continue telling the story of Times Beach to reporters, researchers and area schoolchildren now several generations removed from the catastrophe.
“The whole country needs to know what happened here, so it doesn't happen again,’’ Leistner said.
A state park with a past
The fall of Times Beach began on dusty, gravel streets.
In 1972, town officials hired oil waste recycler Russell Bliss to spray oil on the roads to keep the dust down. He applied oil mixed with chemical waste that he had been hired by a chemical plant to dispose of. In addition to polluting the roadways of Times Beach, Bliss also sprayed the dioxin-laced oil on several dozen other sites in the area.
In 1983, the EPA announced a buyout of all properties in the town, using money from the newly created Superfund. Times Beach was disincorporated in 1985.
After the cleanup, the federal government transferred ownership of the site to Missouri.
Route 66 State Park officially opened on Sept. 11, 1999, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The ribbon is on display in the visitors center.
There is also a plaque lauding the cleanup:
“On this date, June 26, 1997, one of America's greatest triumphs over environmental disaster came to an end,’’ reads the inscription. “In the preceding 16 months, beginning March 17, 1996, over 265,374 tons of dioxin contaminated soil from 25 different sites in eastern Missouri were safely destroyed by high temperature incineration. On July 2, 1997, Times Beach was designated a new state park for the people of Missouri.’’
The state chose Route 66 as the focus of the new park because the historic road ran through Times Beach, said Don Fink, the park’s manager for 17 years.
“After Route 66 was decommissioned in 1985, a lot of states began forming associations to try to preserve places along Route 66,’’ he said.
The visitors center is housed in the only Times Beach building left standing — the former Bridgehead Inn, later known as Steiny’s Inn. The roadhouse opened in 1935 at the eastern entrance of the Meramec River bridge, which carried Route 66 across the river. The Missouri Department of Transportation closed the bridge 10 years ago. The bridge is on the National Registry of Historic Places, and preservationists are raising funds to save it.
The visitors center caters to Route 66 buffs, but a small exhibit relates the history of Times Beach.
The town began as a newspaper promotion in 1925 when the old St. Louis Times began offering subscribers an enticing deal: For $67.50, they would get a six-month subscription, plus a tiny lot in a summer resort next to the Meramec River that it dubbed Times Beach. Eventually, people began building permanent homes in the community.
The exhibit offers a brief version of the dioxin buyout and cleanup.
The park has no plans to mark its 20th anniversary, but former Times Beach residents often hold their own reunions at the site, Fink said.
“We do have a number of former residents that have come back to see where they lived,” he said.
Some families buy park benches to honor loved ones who lived in Times Beach.
Dioxin doomed Times Beach
Leistner, who lives in nearby Eureka, drives through the park several evenings a week, watching for white-tailed deer and wild turkeys. She can still see in her mind where the buildings used to be.
“The memories bring back some of the hurt that people experienced,’’ she said. “The people from Times Beach were impacted physically, psychologically, socially and economically.”
The lives of the 800 families that lived in Times Beach turned upside down in December 1982.
On Dec. 5 — just weeks after town officials learned the EPA was testing for possible dioxin contamination — the flooding Meramec River reached record-breaking levels and engulfed the town. On Dec. 23, the EPA announced what residents referred to as “the Christmas surprise” — dioxin levels at Times Beach were so dangerous that residents should evacuate the town. People who had returned after the floodwaters began to subside were told to leave; people who had not yet returned were told not to come back.
“Had it not been for the dioxin, the community would be alive and well and happy today,’’ Leistner said. “They had recovered from many floods. There were already people rebuilding their homes not knowing that there would be a buyout.’’
After dioxin was discovered, the town’s mayor resigned and Leistner ran for the office. She became the face of the community in local and national news reports.
It was an era of highly publicized environmental disasters, topped by Love Canal, the neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, that was polluted by a toxic waste dump. That case led to the establishment of the EPA’s Superfund.
After Times Beach aldermen voted to disincorporate, then-Gov. John Ashcroft appointed Leistner to serve as town trustee during the buyout. She describes it as a thankless job that put her in the middle between residents and buyout officials who were determining property values.
“If I had been in charge of the money, I would have given a lot more,’’ Leistner said. “Some will tell you they were fairly compensated, and some will tell you they were not.’’
The dumping wasn't against the law
Leistner is still upset that Times Beach officials first found out about the dioxin from a reporter who had seen a list of sites under investigation. She believes the community should have been told sooner about the danger.
She knows former residents who developed thyroid disorders and cancer, including some of her own family members. Many sued the chemical companies. In 1992 alone, the chemical companies reached out-of-court settlements with 381 people who had filed more than a dozen dioxin lawsuits. The terms were not disclosed.
The dioxin was traced to the Hoffman-Taff chemical plant in Verona, Missouri, that produced the defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. The U.S. Justice Department eventually sued various chemical companies, including Syntex Agribusiness, which bought the plant in 1969, and the Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Co., which rented facilities at the plant to manufacture hexachlorophene, a disinfectant. Dioxin byproducts from the production of Agent Orange and hexachlorophene were stored together at the plant.
In 1990, U.S. District Judge John F. Nangle entered a consent degree requiring Syntex Agribusiness to reimburse $10 million to the Superfund. The company was also required to build an incinerator at Times Beach to burn the contaminated soil.
Bliss always maintained that he didn’t know the waste was dangerous. He wasn’t charged with a crime because there were no laws regulating the handling of toxic waste at that time. But federal authorities did charge him with tax evasion because he did not report his waste-hauling income. He served a one-year sentence for tax evasion.
'I’d live there again, no questions asked'
Donna Pollard-Branson, 63, of Fairview Heights would move back to Times Beach if she could.
“It was a great place,’’ she said. “I'd live there again, no questions asked.’’
One of her saddest memories was seeing the house built by her dad being torn down. She was driving on Interstate 44 and looked over at Times Beach, just in time to see her childhood home being razed.
“I sat on the side of the road and bawled my eyes out for a while,’’ she said, fighting back tears. “There wasn’t anything else I could do.”
Pollard-Branson’s family has not developed any health issues that can be traced to Times Beach, she said.
“I know there was damage done,’’ she said. “I know there's sickness and, knock on wood, there's nothing wrong with us. We ran through the fog when they were spraying for mosquitoes. We ran barefoot on the oiled roads.’’
Pollard-Branson prefers to focus on her happy childhood in Times Beach, not the buyout.
“To be angry for the rest of your life is never going to change what happened,’’ she said. "It's done. You can't fix it now.’’
Mike Capstick, 54, would like to erase the stigma attached to his childhood home.
“Times Beach was a great place,’’ he said. “I grew up there. I ran the streets with my buddies and we'd play ball and we chased pretty girls, and it was a great city. Mostly blue collar. Nobody was rich. But man we all got along.’’
Capstick is rehabbing a home in south St. Louis city now, but he used to run at the state park when he lived in Eureka.
“It's a beautiful place,’’ he said. “They do really well with keeping it up.’’
Capstick, who works as a chemical operator at an area plant, holds a dim view of Russell Bliss, who spread the dioxin-laced oil.
“Ethically and morally, he was wrong,’’ Capstick said. “And what he did destroyed the entire town. He didn’t break a criminal law, but he knew what he was doing. I don’t know that he knew that the stuff was that hazardous, but, still, he shouldn’t have done that.”
Chemical plants are necessary, and so are environmental regulations, Capstick said.
“So the lesson learned from Times Beach was when we make something, we are responsible for it from the moment we make it until it no longer exists — which is a very long time for many things,’’ he said. “We owe it to the environment. We owe it to our neighbors. We owe it to everybody to do it in a responsible, safe way.’’
'If you look hard enough, you know that it was here'
Park attendance is 200,000 people a year, Fink said. Attendance dropped by about 40,000 after the Meramec River bridge was closed, cutting off the visitors center — which is on two acres of parkland on the east bank — from most of the park. Visitors must now take I-44 to get from one section to the other.
“We still get a fair number of Route 66 travelers that come to our visitors center, but they don't necessarily see our park like they did before,’’ he said. “And, vice versa, our regular park users don't stop by our visitors center.’’
A plan advocated by the Missouri State Parks Foundation would reopen the bridge to bike and pedestrian traffic only.
In 2012, the EPA returned to Times Beach at the request of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to test for dioxin. Using new testing methods, the EPA reported that it found no health risks for park visitors or workers.
On a recent summer evening, Mike and Kelly Dinger of Eureka were bicycling at the park.
As they pedaled past the town mound, a fawn ambled across the road behind them.
The Dingers like the park’s flat roadways for biking and watch for wildlife roaming through the thick woods and prairie-like fields.
“They did make good on their promises to make it a nice place for people to have for recreation,’’ Kelly Dinger said. “And it is beautiful.’’
Dinger knows a former Times Beach resident who was displaced by the buyout.
“She talks about all the great times they had here and how tight the little community was and how it just tore her to pieces to have to leave,’’ Dinger said.
Times Beach should never be forgotten, she added.
“The least we can do is remember what was here — and the lives that were lived here,’’ she said.
While biking through the park, Dinger has noticed clusters of surprise lilies and flowers blooming in what used to be people’s yards. She thinks about the people who planted them.
“There was a whole community here. Kids playing and people having barbecues,'' she said. "You'll see evidence of the past if you look hard enough — and you know that it was here.’’
Follow Mary Delach Leonard on Twitter: @marydleonard
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