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2 TOWNS LOST

There used to be a town at the end of this ramp. A slice of rural America a half-hour and a world away from St. Louis, where women popped through back doors in housedresses for morning coffee and cars got fixed at Dake's Auto Repair.

Eleven years ago the government made the town disappear.

Today, officially, Times Beach, Mo., doesn't exist. It's not on any state map and the highway signs that marked it have been removed.

The 2,240 people who once lived there are also gone, their houses and most everything they owned bulldozed and buried under an enormous mound of dirt that now rises from the weeds of an empty field.

Outside these parts, Times Beach is only a name. An '80's edition trivia question. But for the former residents who fled a decade ago in fear and confusion to nearby towns, it lives on.

If nothing else, it is a symbol of their fall from innocence.

"We were raised to think our government would always be there to take care of us. They told us they were going to make us whole again," said Marilyn Liestner, the last mayor of Times Beach who now lives less than a dozen miles away. "But there is no way they can make us whole again."

It was the discovery of the chemical dioxin that set off a government panic unlike any seen before.

For the first time in American history an entire town was dismantled because of an environmental disaster, a decision that is being second-guessed even today.

So complete was the need to destroy all traces of the chemical, the very dirt on which the town once stood will be gathered this spring and eventually burned.

The cleanup should be finished by the turn of the century.

Rose Essen, now 46, can close her eyes and still see out her window that November day in 1982. It was like something straight from a science fiction movie: creatures in white, baggy jumpsuits with gas masks strapped to their faces moving slowly across the field behind her house.

They were especially interested in the dirt, scooping it and saving it. When one woman went to get her mail, one of the men digging around her mailbox told her she had to get away. But he wouldn't tell her why.

Who were these government people anyway and why were they so afraid of their soil and air that they had to wear those get-ups? Didn't children play in that soil everyday?

Marilyn Leistner, then a first-term alderman, suddenly found herself thrown in the middle of this crisis. She had never been much interested in politics, running for office only because she wanted a playground built so her four children had a place to play.

Little did she know that within a year she would be named mayor and testifying before Congress.

Leistner knew the Environmental Protection Agency had been quietly going through the files in City Hall for weeks, looking for records of any payments to a man named Russell Bliss.

A decade before, in the early 1970s, Bliss, a waste hauler who lived nearby, had been hired to spray the gravel and dirt roads in town with an oily concoction to keep the dust down.

Rose Essen said her son used to ride his bicycle behind Bliss' truck as it sprayed the oil. All the kids did. "He thought it was a big deal to get in the oil. He'd come home covered in it."

What no one knew then was that Bliss had created his concoction from the chemical sludge scraped from the waste tanks of a company that made hexachlorophene, a germicide used in soaps.

The tanks, as it turned out, had also been used to store the residue from another compound: Agent Orange.

The sludge he spread across roads throughout eastern Missouri contained a chemical compound called 2,3,7,8 tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, or dioxin. Today, many scientists believe it is the most dangerous chemical ever created.

But back then, what Bliss did was completely legal. Years of litigation have failed to prove he knew it was dangerous.

The first Leistner heard of this thing called dioxin was one afternoon in early November. She was working at her part-time job as a dental assistant when the town clerk called and seemed terribly upset. A reporter had just called looking for a comment about high levels of dioxin suspected in Times Beach.

It wasn't until the next day that the EPA told town leaders it was true.

As word got out, the news media also descended on the little town. Suddenly reporters were as common on the streets as the men in the moonsuits.

But they wanted to know whether people were scared of this invisible poison all around them. No one knew what to say.

An EPA representative met with people at a town meeting. People felt somewhat reassured afterward because apparently the dioxin was buried under the now-paved streets.

Then the flood came.

Some might wonder how a town a thousand miles from the nearest ocean could get "beach" in its name.

Back in 1925 the St. Louis Times ran a circulation promotion: If you spent $67.50 for a six-month subscription, you could get a 20- by 100-foot lot in an area being developed on the banks of the Meramec River. It was nicknamed Times Beach. The name stuck.

It was a working-class town where people got married, had babies and their babies grew up to live just down the street. There were two beauty shops, a couple taverns, a Seven-Eleven and a place to get your poodle clipped.

Some of the people who bought back in '25 had never left.

Throughout November and December of 1982 the skies dumped one downpour after another. Old-timers had never seen such rain that time of year. Usually the river level was at 18.5 feet. When the Meramec finally crested, it did so at 42.88 feet.

On December 4, the river slammed through town. In some places only the rooftops of houses were showing. But with the water came something much worse: the dirt.

When the flood ripped through the streets and into houses, it brought with it all of the contaminated soil that had been buried. Clothes, toys, furniture were coated with mud.

By the middle of December, people started filtering back to their houses to begin to clean up and rebuild. The dioxin scare had been replaced with more pressing matters.

Two days before Christmas the EPA announced its findings from November: The soil samples showed dioxin contamination more than 100 times greater than safe levels.

The agency advised residents against rebuilding but there was no talk yet of a buy-out. No one knew what to do. The EPA handed out fliers telling people how to clean the contaminated soil off their belongings.

Yet soon afterward, CBS This Morning did a segment about Times Beach with a link-up between town leaders and a leading expert on dioxin from Chicago named Bertram Carnow.

Carnow's comments were chilling. Leistner recalls them vividly: "He said, "Don't take anything with you. You can never wash it off. Don't go back.' "

Rose and Ben Essen didn't. They turned their back on their home in Times Beach, the one they had been in for eight years.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, involved because of the flood, moved them into a trailer park on Jan. 4, 1983.

A couple weeks later, Essen heard a terrible commotion outside. A television news helicopter had landed on the front yard and a reporter was banging on his door, looking for a comment:

Dioxin had been found again, this time at the trailer park they had just moved into. How did they feel?

"FEMA hadn't told us nothing," Essen said recently. "The news media was the only way we found out anything back then."

The next day, the EPA confirmed what the reporter had already told them. They were told they would have to move immediately.

In February, the federal and state governments announced the unprecedented move of buying out all Times Beach residents.

Then came the offers. And with them, said Leistner, came what many saw as a threat.

"They told us, "If you don't accept our offer we will condemn the property,"' she said.

That would mean people would be given what their houses were worth after the flood.

"You took what they gave you" said Rose Essen.

For some, that was fine. Maybe even better than they had hoped. The offers ranged from $16,000 to $98,000.

But for others, the offers were just too low. Those people angrily spray-painted the amounts onto their former houses to shame the price up.

The first check was cut in September: 10 months after the EPA first came to town. Thirteen years after Russell Bliss sprayed their streets.

Ben and Rose Essen used their money to help buy 20 acres of wooded land a few miles down the road from Times Beach. It was divided among six families, all former neighbors, who built new houses next to each other.

They wanted their old neighborhood back.

Long before the men in the moonsuits showed up, strange things had been happening in Times Beach.

There were mysterious ailments and odd skin problems. Dogs and horses died for no good reason.

Linda Cantrell's son Charles was born in 1977 with a double rectum that had to be surgically corrected. Throughout his life he has been plagued by skin sores, unexplained rashes and tumors in his mouth.

Cantrell, now 46, suffered one gynecological problem after another until she had a complete hysterectomy at age 33.

Of Marilyn Leistner's four children, one has developed epilepsy, two now have serious hyper-thyroid conditions, and one has a recurring skin rashes and swelling. All are unexplained.

Her former husband, Jerry Akers, has been diagnosed with porphyria cutanea-tarda and chlor-acne, both extremely rare skin conditions linked to Agent Orange.

Her current husband, William, had prostate cancer. Leistner herself has had seven tumors in her uterus and a tumor on her face so large her lower jaw had to be surgically reconstructed.

Cantrell said she actually felt relief when she heard something dangerous had been discovered in her town.

"For some people it was like an answer,"she said.

Yet was it?

More than a decade after the evacuation of Times Beach, and after millions of dollars in research and health studies, the level of risk from dioxin is still uncertain.

"There's no definitive answer and I'm not sure there ever will be," said Daryl Roberts, chief of environmental epidemiology for the Missouri Health Department.

Medical studies conducted on people exposed to dioxin in Times Beach have not showed what experts expected.

Roberts said there has not been a higher than average rate of liver and kidney disease, birth defects or central nervous system disorders among participants.

EPA began a new study two years ago. There are no results yet.

"It was strange when they first took down the sign on the highway," Cantrell said. "You can take down a sign but you can't erase a town."

When she drives by Exit 266 she can almost see where her house used to be. She always looks.

"Even now," she said, "I would still like to drive down my street one more time."

One of the conditions of the buy-out was that once you agreed to a price, you had to also agree never to return.

Kathy Sharp, who said she is trying to put it all behind her, wonders what happened to her tulip tree. Does it still bloom?

Rose Essen gets agitated by the subject. "I personally wish they'd blow it off the face of the Earth. I hate Times Beach. I hate what we had to go through."

Her husband smiles at her, pats her arm. He has his own opinion. "People should never, ever let this thing die."

The road that once led into town now leads three-tenths of a mile into a locked metal gate. No one but cleanup officials are allowed in.

The old water tower, rusting now but with Times Beach still written on its side, peeks through the trees. A few stops signs remain, overlooked during demolition. Deer and wild turkey graze freely among the trees and weeds of the abandoned acres.

Dozens of surveying stakes line streets still laid out as if a town existed. Each one marks a contamination site.

More than 2,500 people in and around Times Beach have sued the chemical companies alleging personal injury and negligence surrounding the dioxin disposal.

Russell Bliss was also sued. Still living nearby, he has long maintained he never knew dioxin was dangerous. He was convicted in 1983 of tax fraud for overstating his expenses in his waste-hauling business and served eight months in prison.

Most all of the suits have now been settled. The total is around $30-million, which does not include about 400 cases where the settlements were sealed.

Cantrell's case dragged on six years before she agreed to a sealed settlement.

"I was tired," she said, "To me it was them saying that they were wrong. I'm done now."

But there is something more that has been lost. Something hard to measure in lawsuits.

"I don't have the confidence in the government that I used to," she said.

Neither does Sharp. "My husband always said I wouldn't know what to do if someone stole my rose-colored glasses," she said. "They don't work when it comes to the government anymore."

But both women say they don't have much fight left in them anymore either.

Leistner is one of the few people who keeps the fight alive, now working to stop construction of the incinerator that will burn the soil on which their houses once stood.

A 1,400-page permit application to build and operate the incinerator is being reviewed by the state and federal government.

Opponents are unconvinced of its safety. They worry about another flood, even though the area was untouched by last summer's massive flooding. Should water reach the contaminated soil, it could wash into the river and endanger all of the neighboring towns.

They also worry that as the soil is burned, the emissions will further jeopardize the health of people who already have been exposed to dioxin.

The EPA is currently building a levee around the proposed incinerator site to guard against flooding. The agency has also promised to require pollution control devices on the incinerator to reduce the risk from emissions.

That's a hard sell to Leistner and others who have lost faith in government promises.

"There's no way I can walk away from this," she said. Her basement office has become a command center. Her husband hates it.

"We've talked about getting a non-published number. We've talked about moving away but I can't," she said. "I don't think I'll ever be allowed to let go."

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