ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. – Summer is that time when Missouri families pack their vehicles and head somewhere for a relaxing vacation or weekend getaway, like any of the state’s popular lakes or beaches. But there’s a former resort town in west St. Louis County that was home to one of the largest environmental disasters in United States history and rendered the resort into a ghost town.

The St. Louis Times offers to sell plots of land to residents on the cheap, as long as they buy a six-month subscription.

The city of Times Beach was founded in 1925 as part of a newspaper subscription deal. The publishers of the St. Louis Times paper purchased hundreds of acres of farmland along the Meramec River, just east of Eureka, to create a resort.

Newspaper management offered readers a deal: purchase a six-month subscription to the Times and you could buy a 20′ by 100′ plot of land at the new resort town for just $67.50 (roughly $1,127 in 2022 dollars). Hundreds of plots sold in very little time. St. Louisans and business owners were drawn by the paper’s promise: “The Sweltering Heat and Discomfort of the City Are Unknown at Times Beach.”

The city’s creation and development coincided with the construction of Route 66, which passed through Times Beach, allowing for easy access to the resort.

For the first several years of its existence, Times Beach functioned like a resort town, with families living there during the summer and then leaving for the fall and winter. Unfortunately, the 1930s and 1940s were not kind to Times Beach. The Great Depression and World War II slowly turned the city from a resort town to a permanent, lower-and-middle-class community.

A picture of Steiny’s Inn, located across the river from Times Beach.

In 1935, The Bridgehead Inn opened across the Meramec River as a roadhouse. It became Steiny’s Inn in 1947 under new management. The inn was sold in 1972 and went back to its original name. It was sold in 1980 and its name was changed yet again, this time to Galley West.

By the early 1970s, Times Beach had a lingering dust problem. The city did not have the necessary funds to pave its 23 miles of dirt roads and was in need of a solution to control the dust. In 1972, the city hired waste hauler Russell Bliss, who sprayed the roads of Times Beach over the next four years with a mixture of waste oil to act as a dust suppressant. Bliss was paid $2,400 ($16,782 in 2022 dollars) for his services. It was a technique he’d developed by spraying local horse farms and stables.

Prior to his contract with Times Beach, Bliss collected up to six truckloads of industrial waste from the Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Company (NEPACCO) facility in Verona, Missouri, which it had leased from Hoffman-Taff. The facility was used to produce hexachlorophene (a chemical used in disinfectants) and Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

The production of hexachlorophene and Agent Orange generated dioxin as a waste product. According to the World Health Organization, dioxin is “highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones, and also cause cancer.” However, it is unclear just how much exposure to the chemical is needed to cause these problems.

A map at the Route 66 State Park Visitor’s Center shows the city limits for Times Beach and Eureka.

In 1971, NEPACCO paid a nearby farmer to dispose of nearly 90 55-gallon drums of dioxin waste in a trench on his property. That same year, they contracted with Bliss to collect 18,500 gallons of waste. Bliss brought the dioxin-contaminated waste back to his facility in Frontenac, Missouri, and unloaded it into tanks containing used motor oil.

That mixture of waste oil and dioxin is what Bliss sprayed on the streets of Times Beach. Those horse farms and stables Bliss sprayed? Dozens of horses and other small animals died as a result. People living in the areas where Bliss had sprayed before taking the Times Beach job also reported headaches, nosebleeds, diarrhea, stomach pain, and skin rashes. One stable owner’s six-year-old daughter became ill, prompting an investigation by the Missouri Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a ban limiting the use of hexachlorophene in September 1972 following the deaths of more than three dozen babies in France who were exposed to the chemical through contaminated baby powder. The Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Company was shut down in August 1976.

In 1979, a former NEPACCO employee contacted the EPA and told them about the drums of dioxin waste buried on that farm in Verona.

Times Beach flooding
Flooding along Meramec River, December 1982. (Photo credit: National Weather Service)

The EPA and CDC slowly worked to uncover the scope of the problem by taking samples of dozens of places where Bliss had sprayed his dioxin-laced mixture. In November 1982, the EPA finally got around to testing the soil at Times Beach. They completed their sampling on Dec. 4, 1982. The following day, the Meramec River overflowed its banks and flooded Times Beach.

As the residents of Times Beach pondered their next moves, the EPA discovered dioxin levels in the soil well above what the agency considered safe. With fears the flooding could have further spread dioxin contamination, on December 23, the EPA advised the people of Times Beach not to return home.

By February 1983, the EPA declared Times Beach a Superfund site and announced a federal buyout of all homes and businesses. By 1985, more than 2,200 Times Beach residents had been evacuated and the city disincorporated.

Incinerator built at the site of the former Times Beach.

The EPA determined the best way to remove the dioxin waste at Times Beach and elsewhere in the state would be to incinerate all of it – homes, structures, and soil. The state of Missouri ordered an incinerator built at the site of the former town in 1996. Syntex Agribusiness, which had acquired Hoffman-Taff in 1969 and had become the parent company of NEPACCO, was tasked with building the incinerator.

According to the EPA, more than 265,000 tons of dioxin-contaminated material from 27 sites across eastern Missouri, including Times Beach, were burned from March 1996 to June 1997, at a cost of $110 million to $200 million.

The incinerator was torn down and cleared and the EPA turned the land over to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. By 1999, the former Times Beach had been turned into the 419-acre Route 66 State Park.

The EPA removed Times Beach from its Superfund list on Sept. 25, 2001. In June 2012, the EPA tested the soil at the park. That November, the agency declared, “Soil samples from Route 66 State Park show no significant health risks for park visitors or workers.”

Times Beach in 1990 (left) and 2009. (Photo credit: U.S. Geological Survey)

For years, Russell Bliss has denied knowing what was in the waste he had been picking up from Verona and mixing with his used motor oil. He’s been the subject of numerous lawsuits, along with NEPACCO, Syntex Agribusiness, and the Independent Petrochemical Corporation. Prior to 1976, there were no laws in place regulating the transportation and disposal of hazardous waste.

Galley West closed during the 1982 contamination and evacuation crisis at Times Beach. Despite not being in the contaminated area, the building was included in the government buyout plan. It was used as the headquarters for the clean-up effort and eventually became the Route 66 State Park Visitor’s Center.