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How Agent Orange Turned This American Small Town Into a Toxic Waste-Ridden Deathtrap

“Walking into the houses, many of them were like people had just simply stood up, walked out and never come back”

Marilyn Leistner, who was the last mayor of Times Beach, stands next to a caution sign erected in front of the town in 1991, not long before the town was bulldozed and buried. (James A. Finley/AP)
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Times Beach, Missouri, was originally a weekend getaway town. Until April 2, 1985—when it ceased to be a town at all.

That’s when the town's former residents voted it out of corporate existence. Only one elderly couple still lived there at the time, according to a report published in The New York Times. Three years previously, the town had been home to 2,242 residents, who were all suddenly evacuated when it was revealed that their dirt roads had all been sprayed down with a mixture containing dioxin—a toxin present in Agent Orange.

“Disincorporation of Times Beach is a sad but necessary step in allowing local citizens, the state and the Federal Government to complete the job in that area,” Missouri Governor John Ashcroft said at the time.

It was yet another sad chapter in a dramatic story that began in December 1982, when men in white suits and respirators showed up on people’s lawns in the small town, writes Jon Hamilton for NPR.

Dioxin had been found throughout the town. The chemical is known to be extremely toxic, according to the World Health Organization. It causes birth defects and reproductive issues, as well as immune issues and, you guessed it, cancer. As William Powell writes in St. Louis Magazine, there's still debate about just how much dioxin was in the road spray, but the dangerous chemical was certainly present. 

Marilyn Leistner, the last mayor of Times Beach, says the message people received was, “If you live in the community, you need to get out. If you’re outside of the community, don’t go back. And don’t take nothing with you.”

Because of a massive flood that showed up not long after the government agents, many people were already staying elsewhere. Some didn't go back, while others returned only to leave again. The controversy over what to do pitted townsfolk against one another, writes Powell.

“The first time I went to the site, I went by myself, and it was heart-wrenching,” Gary Pendergrass, who was in charge of cleaning up the town, told Hamilton. “Walking around the streets, walking into houses, many of them were like people had just simply stood up, walked out and never came back,” he said. “Plates on the tables, Christmas trees, Christmas decorations outside, and just street after street of that.”

The massive clean-up operation he directed demolished those houses and buried them, and removed dioxin from 265,000 tons of soil. The whole thing cost more than $100 million, Hamilton reports.

The answer to the question of how dioxin came to cover the town in the first place lies in its sleepy roots. Lots in the town were originally given away as part of a publicity stunt by the St. Louis Times and marketed as a weekend getaway, and the resulting year-round population wasn't huge.  By 1972, “the town didn’t have the funds to properly pave their dusty dirt roads,” writes Raphael Orlove for Jalopnik, “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.”

Bliss was sure it would work, because he’d done the same thing for a stable nearby, he writes. And he knew he’d make a profit, because he got the materials for his road spray by mixing one tankload of oil with six truckloads of waste from a chemical manufacturer.  “This chemical manufacturer made its money manufacturing Agent Orange during the Vietnam War,” he writes. “Their waste turned out to be hexachlorophene tainted with dioxin.”

After 62 horses died at the stables where Bliss had sprayed, the EPA got on his tail. A decade after he sprayed down the town’s roads, the organization announced the crazy dioxin levels in Times Beach. Bliss dealt with a number of lawsuits, Powell writes, but continues to deny he knew what was in the waste. The government bought up the town over the next three years and then demolished it. Today, what was Times Beach is now the site of Route 66 State Park

Editor's note: This story initially misstated that dioxin is the main ingredient in Agent Orange. The dioxin tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin is present in Agent Orange, but is not the main ingredient; Smithsonian.com regrets the error.

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