If you’re from St. Louis, then you are most likely familiar with the town of Times Beach. Founded in 1925, Times Beach was a promotional gimmick by the St. Louis Star Newspaper. A purchase of a 20 X 100-foot lot for $67.50 included a free six-month newspaper subscription. Advertised as a vacation spot along the Meramec River, the promotional gimmick was a success, but with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, owning a summer home for many Times Beach residents became impractical. Most of the lots were sold off for less than the initial promotional price and Times Beach became a community of mostly low-income housing. Most of the roads in Times Beach were gravel, and in the summer the dust stirred up by automobile traffic made life miserable. The city hired an independent contractor to spray the roads with oil to keep the dust down. This same contractor was also hired by NEPACCO, a Missouri chemical company to dispose of their unwanted waste byproducts. NEPACCO produced an antibacterial agent that was used in most soaps, toothpaste, and household cleaners. The main byproduct of their chemical manufacturing process was a hazardous compound called Dioxin.
In the 1970’s little was known about the health hazards of Dioxin. The contractor mixed the NEPACCO waste products with the oil and sprayed this solution on the gravel roads of Times Beach. Mixing the chemical sludge from NEPACCO was seen a cost savings measure, and a convenient way to dispose of the unwanted chemical byproduct. The Dioxin sludge thickened the oil and made it stick longer to the gravel roads. Decades of spraying this chemically laced sludge made Times Beach the most toxic place in the United States. An investigation conducted by the Center for Disease Control found that Dioxin contamination attributed to the hundreds of farm animal deaths, and was the primary cause of many unexplained deaths, serious illnesses, and birth defects that plagued the residents of Times Beach.
On December 5, 1982, the United States Government conducted a mandatory evacuation of Times Beach. The town became the nation’s first “Environmental Super Fund Site,” and it took almost ten years billions dollars to clean up. The first eight inches of topsoil had to be removed and incinerated in a specially made incineration plant. The plant ran twenty-four hours a day until the decontamination process was complete.
Today almost nothing remains of the original Times Beach except for the few asphalt and concrete roads. The area is now a state park, and the few hard surface roads left of Times Beach are used by bicyclist, runners, and hikers.