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The toxic legacy of air pollution

The risks to brains and babies

We have known air pollution kills lots of people, including as many as 1.5 million each year in China, with 400,000 early deaths in the EU, and as many as 7 million premature deaths a year globally.  It also inflicts serious respiratory and cardiovascular disease, including asthma, on many more.

Now we are learning that the risks from air pollution are more insidious than we imagined.

 

 

 

 

 

A recent study in China found that air pollution causes a “huge” reduction in intelligence as reflected in significant reductions in test scores in language and arithmetic.  On average the results showed the loss of a year’s worth of education from the air pollution, with language skills more affected than mathematics.  Earlier research had demonstrated that air pollution harmed cognitive performance in students, but this study was able to show that the adverse effects were worse for the elderly, especially those over 64, and worse for men than women.  So all those critical financial decisions that people make as they get older, like how to survive retirement, may be less informed that we thought.

Having some problems with words and math is not the only deficit you can look forward to because of air pollution.  In an observational study, air pollution has been linked to a 40% increase in dementia for people over 50 in areas of the highest levels of nitrogen oxide (NOx) in the air compared to those living in least NOx pollution.

It is not only the aging population that has to worry quite a bit about air pollution.  Earlier studies had linked air pollution to risks of premature births and low birth weight and other harms in unborn babies.  Research has now found direct evidence that toxic air travels through pregnant womens’ lungs and into their placentas.   The study was of women in London.  While not yet confirmed, the deep concern is that the particles can move into the foetus and affect the unborn and newly born babies.

 

 

 

 

It is not like we do not know the source of what is causing these risks.  Road traffic is one of the worse sources of air pollution.  So this new research underlines even more the increasingly irresponsible behavior of the UK government in refusing to act according to the law to reduce this source of air pollution, as demonstrated in the long-running court battle with ClientEarth.

A recent development in Spain seems timely as it can help avoid some of the effects of this air pollution.  Researchers have developed an app that relies on data from air quality monitors throughout Madrid to build a mapping application that calculates the least polluted route from one location to another.

But the clearer, nearly impossible, solution is simply to get rid of cars, as John Vidal has recently urged.

 

Sources

Frances Bloomfield, “Air pollution in northern China reducing life expectancy,” Natural News (9 September 2018). bit.ly/2QEKuci

Damian Carrington and Lily Kuo, “Air pollution causes ‘huge’ reduction in intelligence, study reveals,” The Guardian (27 August 2018). bit.ly/2BRSFP5

Damian Carrington, “Air pollution particles found in mothers’ placentas: New research shows direct evidence that toxic air – already strongly linked to harm in unborn babies – travels through mothers’ bodies,” The Guardian (16 Sept 2018).
bit.ly/2D3QzfJ

ClientEarth, New clean air consultation shows UK government struggling to solve air pollution crisis (29 may 2018).
bit.ly/2xoH9Gh

Fiona Harvey, “Air pollution linked to much greater risk of dementia,” The Guardian (18 Sept 2018). bit.ly/2xxyIbb

Nicole Wetsman, “Want to Avoid Pollution on Your Way Home? Madrid Has an App for That,” The Daily Beast (17 Sept 2018). thebea.st/2NOo8GO

John Vidal, “Want to cut air pollution? Get rid of your car,” The Guardian (19 Sept 2018).
bit.ly/2NYwOuc

 

Editor’s Update (12 Oct 2018):  Nicola Davis, “Air pollution linked to greater risk of mouth cancer, finds study,” The Guardian (9 Oct 2018).  bit.ly/2pMSDzm

The false choice of mitigation vs adaptation

It’s a dangerous dilemma for the indigenous Sami of Sweden and their reindeer

There does seem to be a growing sense, if not consensus, among the general public that climate change is for real, and is already beginning to present serious problems that will get worse over time.  The extreme weather events over the past several years are a major contributor to this shift.

The challenge now is how to convince the general public, and through them the political class, that something needs to be done about climate change.  Here the battle is between mitigating climate change — acting now to reduce or eliminate the greenhouse gases (GHGs) that we emit into the atmosphere — or adapting to the effects of the climate change — waiting to see what happens and then taking action.  We can argue that both are necessary, but the public is fickle and lazy and want an easier answer.  They look to make a choice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not many of those who are deeply involved with these issues are willing to say that adaptation is the easier choice, because that has the danger of undermining mitigation. Yet there is uncertainty as to the exact depth and scope and timing of impacts from climate change that will vary from local area to local area.  So, it is argued, why spend money now, to mitigate, when you can wait and see more clearly what is needed before spending the effort and resources to deal with the impacts.

Of course the logic is flawed.  If there is insufficient mitigation now, the warming may well exceed our ability or capacity to adapt.  It will be too late.  With sudden-onset tipping points, and gradual impacts, there may not be enough money to get us out of harm’s way.

The critical question is: Who is “us”?  Who do we get out of harm’s way?  Well, first of all, ourselves, and those we are close to or identify with — our family, friends, colleagues, fellow citizens.

On the nation level, the rich, developed countries will protect themselves, and can stay put, while the poor, developing countries will have to fend for themselves, and get out.  The rich too often find it easy to dismiss the poor of other countries

When confronted with the threat that small island nations might be wiped out by sea rise, a George H. Bush administration supporter glibly suggested, “What’s wrong with a bit of sea level rise? It is merely changing land use—where there were cows there will be fish.”  Those whose lives and cultures will be destroyed by even a slight rise in sea level would think otherwise.  Note 1.

But even the developed, rich societies are going to have to face the reality that some parts of their own communities will, like the developing countries, need help to get out of the way.

Here’s an example.  In Sweden, the indigenous Sami herders depend on the reindeer for their food, clothing and tools — the reindeer are a deep part of the Sami culture —and the reindeer depend on lichen as their primary food source. Lichen is a unique organism that takes its nutrients from the air; it also does not shed tissue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The reindeer have been subjected to environmental threats in the past.   In the 1960s, there were concerns about the radiation fallout from nuclear bomb tests on the reindeer.  Then in 1986 the radioactive clouds spread from Chernobyl across Europe.  Particularly hard hit by fallout from rain was northern Sweden.

In the fall of 1986, following the seasonal slaughter of the Sami reindeer, it was discovered that the carcasses contained dangerous levels of radioactive contaminants. A typical Sami family ate reindeer meat six to eight times a week, with a total average weekly intake of two pounds. Given the elevated level of contaminants, each Sami would be subjected to a dose of radiation one hundred times the recommended safe level.

The Swedish government intervened and purchased that year’s supply of reindeer meat, but this measure did not solve the long-term problem. Several generations must pass before the lichen is completely cleansed of the radioactive contaminants.

If the authorities enforced a permissible level of 300 Bq/kg of radioactive substances in reindeer meat, a substantial portion of the Sami reindeer would have had to be destroyed. Sami culture depended on the reindeer, so rather than destroy the culture by destroying the reindeer, Sweden simply raised the permissible level for cesium to 1,500 Bq/kg. Although at first blush, this solution might be seen as absurd or dangerous to the health of the Sami people, there was a precedent to the decision. The permissible level for cesium in the United States was 1,500 Bq/kg.  Note 2.  Thirty years later there are still elevated levels of radioactive materials found in the reindeer.

Now the Sami, and their reindeer, have to contend with climate change.  Current warming and wildfires, even in the Arctic Circle, fueled in part by climate change, have destroyed grazing lands with the lichen that is critical for the reindeers’ food supply.  Future climate impacts will worsen things.  Warmer summers do help lichen to grow but warmer and wetter winters result in rainfall rather than snowfall in the colder months.  As a result, when temperatures go below freezing, sheets of ice form instead of softer crusts of snow. The reindeer cannot smell lichen or dig through the ice so they starve to death.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Climate change represents a threat that likely will outlast even the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl.

The Sami are demanding a long-term government aid programme to help manage and adapt to the current climate change impacts on the reindeer herds.  But they know that these impacts will intensify if there is insufficient mitigation and that because of climate warming the culture of an entire section of Swedish life may disappear.

The Sami are not going to go quietly.  Nor should they.

 

Notes

Note 1.  J. R. Spradley, a former prominent member of President George H. Bush’s Commerce Department, quoted in Jeremy Leggett, The Carbon War (New York: Routledge Press, 2001), 119, and quoted in Robert Emmet Hernan, “Climate Change,” This Borrowed Earth: Lessons from the 15 Worst Environmental Disasters Around the World, published in English in February 2010 by PalgraveMacmillan and in Chinese in December 2011 by China Machine Press.

Note 2.  See “Chernobyl” in Robert Emmet Hernan, This Borrowed Earth (above).

Sources

Jon Henley, “Sweden’s reindeer at risk of starvation after summer drought,” The Guardian (22 August 2018). bit.ly/2w22FjK

Watch for sheep dressed in oil cloth. They can be slippery.

That’s what proposals for carbon tax can sometimes feel like.

The basics of a carbon tax are a per-ton tax on the carbon dioxide emissions generated by fossil fuels or other products. Other greenhouse gases, like methane, are often included by converting their emissions into a carbon dioxide equivalent, or CO2e.

Depending on its details, a carbon tax can offer many benefits for moving us all away from consumption of fossil fuels.  In some respects it offers more than a cap and trade system of pricing fossil fuels, as a carbon tax is simpler, often with fewer escape clauses, and it can be collected by existing taxing regimes and resources.

But there is the key question of what to do with the revenue generated by the tax.  Many if not most proponents argue for a revenue-neutral regime where the tax collected goes back to consumers of energy resources who have to pay higher prices for energy.  Environmentalists often argue to use at least part of the tax funds for the development and deployment of renewable resources, with the expectation this will reduce costs of energy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What needs to be watched is what else is proposed as part of a carbon tax plan.  What are the trade-offs for the fossil fuel industry supporting any carbon tax plan?

For example, in the US, a carbon tax plan has recently been proposed by former Republican Senator Trent Lott (Mississippi) and former Democratic Senator John Breaux (Louisiana), two well-known lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry from oil-rich states.  The plan is endorsed by Exxon Mobil and Shell and others.  The cast of characters behind the plan should raise alarm bells.

At first it seems like false alarms.   The proposal would result in higher energy costs, but all revenue from the tax would be returned to the public, with a family of four, for example, receiving a check for $2,000 every year.  And everybody would have the incentive to reduce the use of carbon fossil fuels.

Here come the alarms.  In exchange for the support of the fossil fuel industry, and its lobbyists and political supporters, the plan requires that Obama’s Clean Power Plan, allowing EPA to regulate carbon emissions, is repealed.  In effect, current and future EPAs could not regulate carbon emissions.  Trump is currently attempting to accomplish this through regulatory undoing but his potential success is questionable.

The carbon tax plan also provides that the fossil fuel companies get immunity from any lawsuits attempting to hold them accountable for any damage they have done to the climate.  This provision is a bonanza as there are more and more lawsuits against fossil fuel companies seeking damages for carbon emissions that are causing climate change impacts, e.g., more severe extreme weather events, rising sea levels, heat waves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is the unspoken scenario under which such a deal could work wonders for fossil fuel companies.  They agree to have a price set on carbon emission, say at $40 per ton as proposed, and in exchange they get the Clean Power Plan repealed, and immunity from lawsuits for what they have done to the climate with their fossil fuels.  Then after the deal is struck and implemented, the fossilists spend a fortune lobbying a future Congress to reduce the carbon tax to say $5 a ton, which the industry will hardly notice and which will most certainly not result in the reduction of use of fossil fuels.  Meanwhile, the Clean Power Plan remains killed and the fossil fuel companies remain immune from climate damages.

Sound far fetched?  Well, here’s what happened with the US federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as Superfund, enacted by Congress on December 11, 1980. This law provided two systems for making sure that sites contaminated with hazardous substances were cleaned up without public expense.

First, it provided for strict, and joint and several liability for anyone or any entity (responsible parties) that disposed of hazardous substances if those substances were released into the environment, regardless of the volume of wastes or the care taken by the responsible party.

Second, CERCLA created a tax on the petroleum industries and others reflecting the polluter pays principal. This tax revenue was the source for the “superfund” that was used to pay for the cleanup of sites where no responsible party could be found or where recalcitrant responsible parties refused to pay for the cleanup.  Over first five years, $1.6 billion was collected for cleaning up abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The usefulness of the Superfund structure is that the governments can demand all responsible parties at a site clean it up, under governmental supervision, and if they refuse, the government can proceed to clean up the site using Superfund monies, and then sue all the companies to recover those Superfund costs.  As a result, the site gets cleaned up as soon as possible and the responsible parties become liable for whatever the government spends.

There were very few defenses available under CERCLA, but one did exclude liability for “petroleum” substances.  An argument for excluding “petroleum” substances from CERCLA liability was that the petroleum industry was paying for cleanups through the tax and therefore should be exempt from further obligation to fund cleanups.

What happened, however, was that the Republican Congress, in 1995, under Newt Gingrich, refused to renew the Superfund taxes and the fund began to dry up, and remains inadequate today for hazardous substance cleanups.  As a result, the tax on the petroleum industry to fund CERCLA was eliminated.  Yet the liability exclusion for petroleum remained in effect resulting in a significant protection for the fossil fuel industry against the onerous liability provisions of CERCLA.

As we noted, a similar result could unfold through the proposed carbon tax plan.  If passed, the fossil fuel companies would get immunity for damages caused by climate change, and no more regulation from a future EPA on carbon emissions.  Then in a few years, with a Republican controlled Congress, the carbon tax could be reduced to an inconsequential amount, say $5 a ton, with no changes to the repeal and immunity provisions.

While the success of the current lawsuits against the fossil fuel companies remains uncertain, the companies are well aware of the history of litigation against the tobacco industry which failed at first but which eventually gained support within the courts and then the public.  Fossil fuel companies have every right to be worried that what happened to sales and consumption of cigarettes may happen with sales and consumption of oil and gas.  The impending demise of coal is the canary in the cage.  Moreover, the movement for divestment of stock in fossil fuel companies, most notably Ireland’s decision to divest, is sending all sorts of market signals.

The fossil fuel industry is getting those signals, and it will fight back.

 

Sources:

Lee Wasserman and David Kaiser, “Beware of Oil Companies Bearing Gifts,” The New York Times, OpEd (25 July 2018).   nyti.ms/2vdaodc   Mr. Wasserman is the director and Mr. Kaiser is the president of the Rockefeller Family Fund

David Roberts, “The 5 most important questions about carbon taxes, answered:  A carbon tax can lower emissions, but it needs to be pretty damn high,” Vox (23 July 2018). bit.ly/2uNm3zr

Some cheery thoughts about action on climate change

Sometimes, maybe most times, we can be depressed and depressing on environmental issues so it’s only fair to be cheery occasionally

 

Trump, and other climate destroyers in, for instance, Australia, will be gone, hopefully sooner rather than later. While the US under T-Rex undermines climate change action, China and others proceed with developing the renewable and sustainable technology that will be critical over the rest of this century, and beyond.

As a result, energy technology (e.g., battery storage capacity, smart meters and grids, solar and wind, maybe carbon capture) will continue to grow by leaps and bounds.  Regional and local governments and institutions will continue to experiment with transportation and building practices and policies to promote energy efficiencies and renewable sources of energy.  Economies of scale and lower prices for renewables are in part the result of states mandating a portion of energy resources to be renewables.

 

 

 

 

 

Many multi-national businesses, accustomed to operating in climate-friendly places like the European Union and California, are resigned to accepting carbon regulation and even are embracing the increasingly lower cost renewables.  As we pointed out in a recent ieBLOG, big oil is making sounds like climate change progressives.  A Statoil n/k/a Equiver report is pushing the view that more renewable energy is urgently needed and that “The climate debate is long on targets, but short on action.”  NYTimes (Povoledo).   ExxonMobil has for years supported a carbon tax as a necessary and fair method for addressing carbon emissions.

Even in Australia, about half of big businesses are moving toward renewables.   As least 22 companies of the Fortune 500 have committed to buying renewable power to meet 100% of their electricity use.  While 22 out of 500 is just a start, 100% is an aggressive target from the 22.  And such action in turn drives utilities to meet these demands from some of their prime industrial customers.  The next step needed is to extend such arrangements to medium and smaller businesses, perhaps by their pooling resources and uses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A recent study has indicated that the fossil fuel industry is facing increasing financial challenges. One key reason is that it now has a competitor (renewables) that can deliver the same product — energy — with cheaper, cleaner, better technologies.  See McKibben.

Of course there are and will be the regressive exceptions, such as the Koch Bros and industrial farming.  But like T-Rex, they will also be gone some day while those who adapt to climate cost pressures will survive economically.

Besides enlightened local, regional and national governments, and progressive leaders of the business community, like Michael Bloomberg and many IT companies, and even some fossil fuel companies, we are also seeing religious leaders stepping up their commitment to climate and other environmental challenges.

In his 2015 climate change encyclical, Laudato si: On Care For Our Common Home, Pope Francis called for a transition away from fossil fuels.  The Pope is at it again, by recently bringing together at the Vatican representatives of some of the biggest oil companies.  At that gathering, Pope Francis reinforced his message from Laudato si making clear that the only debate over climate change was not whether we have to transition away from fossil fuels but how long the transition will be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Around the same time, the government of Indonesia announced that it had joined forces with the country’s two largest Islamic organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, to encourage consumers to reduce plastic waste and reuse their plastic bags.  Such a collaborative effort is notable as Indonesia is the second largest contributor to plastic waste, after China, and it has committed to cutting its plastic waste by 70% by 2025.  And the two Islamic organisations that have committed to help the country meet this target have over 100 million followers.  NU has introduced “Ngaji Sampah” or “Sermons in Waste” which are broadcast online and rely on “Islamic principles to promote sustainable consumption and environmental awareness.”

So while there are lots of powerful special interests that are continuing to sabotage any meaningful action on climate change, there are also some progressive voices and commitments that we need to encourage.

Sources:

Brad Plumer, “ A Year After Trump’s Paris Pullout, U.S. Companies Are Driving a Renewables Boom, The New York Times (1 June 2018). nyti.ms/2Jn0sXG

Ben Smee, “Almost half of Australian big business moving to renewables,” The Guardian (14 May 2018). bit.ly/2IBWLNJ

Kate Lamb, “Preaching against plastic: Indonesia’s religious leaders join fight to cut waste,” The Guardian (7 June 2018).
bit.ly/2kSsrRe

Elisabeth Povoledo, “Pope Tells Oil Executives to Act on Climate: ‘There Is No Time to Lose’,” The New York Times (9 June 2018). nyti.ms/2kXnruC

Bill McKibben, “Some rare good climate news: the fossil fuel industry is weaker than ever,” The Guardian (21 June 2018).  bit.ly/2trDWDd

“The Pope, the Planet and Passion: LAUDATO SI’ and Getting the Tone Right” in the Reports section of irish environment (September 2015). bit.ly/2tyKgtm

“How Big Oil Now Talks about Climate Change: It’s real. It’s happening. It’s dangerous. BUT…” in the ieBLOG section of irish environment (May 2018).

 

Trump and Pruitt are trying to gut the US EPA and undermine its function to protect health and the environment

Reagan tried the same thing in the 1980s and here’s an example of how he failed at the Times Beach, Missouri dioxin Superfund site

At Times Beach, Missouri dioxin was spayed over a town and horse farms and Reagan’s emasculated EPA tried to ignore the impact on the people who lived in the town and on the horse farms. The people fought back and EPA had to reform itself.  Here is that story.

 

Times Beach, Missouri, 1982

Route 66, a highway that ran from Chicago to Santa Monica, California, has always been part pavement, part myth. At its birth in the 1920s, the road stretched 2,448 miles across eight states, from the conservative farmlands of the Midwest to the glamorous West Coast. The route was designed to connect the main streets of small and large towns along the way, providing access to markets for farm products and a means for Americans to explore the country with their newly acquired automobiles. It also provided an escape to California when land dried up during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, a journey depicted in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, where the road acquired the sobriquet the “the mother road, the road of flight.”

After the interstate highway system was constructed, beginning in the 1960s, Route 66 became obsolete and largely disappeared, physically as well as symbolically. A superhighway replaced the last stretch of Route 66 in 1984. In September 1999, an attempt was made to reconstruct the myth of the road. Route 66 State Park was opened along the Meramec River, twenty miles southwest of St. Louis. The park lies in the Meramec floodplain and covers 409 acres with hiking, biking, and horse trails, and wetlands that attract a broad range of birds, deer, and other game. There is a visitor center along with a small museum of Route 66 memorabilia.

The park is unremarkable, except for a vast mound covered with grass that stands next to the picnic area. The mound, which seems oddly out of place in this landscape, is the grave of the town of Times Beach, Missouri–torn down, bulldozed, and buried. Under the grassy mound lie the remains of houses, mobile homes, and businesses, including the Easy Living Laundromat, the Western Lounge bar, the city hall, and the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church. It was not some mighty natural force that caused such devastation. Instead, it was a small-time waste hauler named Russell Bliss, in league with a company that was trying to save a few dollars on its waste disposal costs.

In the late 1960s, the Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Company, Inc., or NEPACCO, set up business in a portion of a manufacturing facility near Verona, Missouri, west of Times Beach. The former operator and still owner of the site was Hoffman-Taff, a company that made the defoliant Agent Orange used by American forces in Vietnam. NEPACCO produced hexachlorophene, an antibacterial agent used in soaps, toothpaste, and hospital cleaners. NEPACCO first made trichlorophenol (TCP), and then further refined it to make hexachlorophene, the same product made at the ICMESA plant in Seveso, Italy. At the end of the distillation process, liquid residues, known as still bottoms, accumulated and were stored in a black 7,500-gallon tank. Disposal of the bottoms was expensive, and though NEPACCO at first paid an experienced waste company to dispose of the still-bottom residues by incineration at a facility in Louisiana, it later looked for ways to cut costs. When a sales representative at ICP, a local company that sold solvents, heard that NEPACCO was looking for a solution to its high-cost waste disposal problems, the company contracted with NEPACCO to dispose of the still bottoms. ICP knew little about waste disposal, however, and it in turn subcontracted the disposal to Russell Bliss. Bliss operated a waste oil business, collecting used crankcase oil from gas stations and reselling it to refineries, recyclers, and anyone else who would pay for it. ICP charged NEPACCO $3,000 per load and paid Bliss $125 per load. ICP knew the material was potentially hazardous but did not know what was in it. ICP sent a sample of the still-bottom residues to Bliss. He dipped a paper napkin in it, lit the napkin, and concluded that it seemed like a heavy grease.

Bliss, or his workers, drained the NEPACCO waste into a tanker truck, and drove the tanker to his storage facility near Frontenac, Missouri. There the still bottoms were unloaded into storage tanks, which were also used to store used crankcase oil. Between February and October 1971, Bliss picked up six truckloads of still bottoms from NEPACCO, each load containing 3,000-3,500 gallons.

In addition to operating a waste oil business, Bliss kept a stable of Appaloosa show horses. To keep the dust down, Bliss drained the mixture of crankcase oil and still bottoms from his storage tanks in Frontenac and sprayed the material around his horse farm. It worked so well that Bliss began to sell his dust-suppressant services to others, including Shenandoah Stable, near Moscow Mills, Missouri. The owners, Judy Piatt and Frank Hempel, who also kept Appaloosas, paid Bliss $150 to spray the floor of their indoor arena in May 1971. Bliss told Piatt that the material would kill all the flies around the horses. It did more than that.

The night after the spraying, a horse grew quite ill. Within a few days, five more horses lost their hair, developed sores, and became severely emaciated. Sparrows, cardinals, and woodpeckers began to drop from the rafters of the barns. Before long the horses, too, began to die. Piatt blamed the deaths on the spraying, but Bliss denied responsibility, claiming that he had sprayed only used motor oil. To try to stem the flood of deaths, Piatt and Hampel removed a foot and a half of soil from around the arena, but to no avail. Eventually sixty-two horses died or had to be destroyed.

Both Piatt and Hempel suffered diarrhea, headaches, and aching joints. Piatt’s six-year-old and ten-year-old daughters also became sick after playing on the floor of the arena. The younger daughter had to be rushed to the hospital on one occasion, and both suffered from gastrointestinal pains and inflamed and bleeding bladders.

A young veterinarian, Dr. Patrick Phillips, who was a graduate student at the time, visited the Piatt stable but could not determine the cause of the illnesses or the deaths of the horses. Because of the unexplained deaths of the horses, and the illnesses of the children, the Missouri Division of Health alerted the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia. In August 1971, the CDC inspected Shenandoah Stable and collected human and animal blood samples, as well as samples of the soil. CDC representatives also spoke with Bliss, who assured them that he had sprayed his own stable with the same material and that he had not experienced any problems.

Piatt and Hempel took matters into their own hands. In September 1971, they sued Bliss for the injuries and loss of the horses. Starting in late 1971, they also surreptitiously followed Bliss’s trucks as waste materials were sprayed or dumped around Missouri. Hempel sometimes wore a wig, Piatt wore a large cowboy hat, and they borrowed different cars to disguise themselves, but Bliss’s drivers often recognized them. Piatt and Hempel kept a record of where Bliss sprayed or disposed of materials, keeping up the surveillance for fifteen months.

While Piatt and Hempel followed Bliss, the CDC attempted to identify what might be in the waste oil that could cause such toxic reactions. By late 1972, they were still unable to identify the chemical culprit. Around this time, Dr. Phillips and Piatt heard about the Timberline Stable, where similar problems had occurred, including the loss of twelve horses. The son of the stable owner also contracted a severe skin disorder, chloracne, after playing in the stable. A colleague of Dr. Phillips took samples at Timberline and suffered a burn and then blistering of his face from the soil sample. The CDC was again notified.

In late 1973 and early 1974, the CDC analyzed more soil samples from Shenandoah Stable, and this time the agency found traces of trichlorophenol (TCP), an ingredient in herbicides that causes blistering. When the trace amounts of TCP were administered to the ears of rabbits, they developed the signs of blistering, as expected with TCP. What was not expected was that several of the rabbits died, and autopsies revealed liver damage. This reaction could not be attributed to such small doses of TCP. Something much more deadly was at work.

The CDC ran more complicated tests and discovered that the soil contained tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD) or, more commonly, dioxin. In fact, the soil samples contained over 30,000 parts per billion (ppb) of dioxin. At this time, though dioxin was known to be deadly to animals, even in small doses, little was known about its effects on humans, and there was no standard for what constituted safe levels of dioxin.

The CDC immediately notified the Missouri Division of Health. Dr. Phillips found Piatt and Hempel at a restaurant and told them the news. He explained what dioxin was, although he himself had only that day learned about it. None of them knew how dangerous dioxin was, only vaguely connecting it with Agent Orange and the Vietnam War.

The authorities began to look for the source of the dioxin. The high concentration of the chemical indicated that it came from an industrial facility. Bliss stated that he got his oil from various sources in Missouri, none of which were industrial sources of dioxin. Dr. Phillips and CDC physicians discovered several facilities in Missouri, including the Hoffman-Taff facility, that could have made Agent Orange or TCP, but none seemed to have any connection with Bliss. Then the investigators located a former supervisor at the Verona plant, who informed them that Bliss had indeed hauled waste from NEPACCO. When they confronted Bliss about the waste hauling he did for NEPACCO, he claimed that he had just remembered the site and was about to call the CDC.

NEPACCO went out of business in 1972, after its main product, hexachlorophene, was banned for most purposes by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The ban followed the deaths of thirty-six infants in France who were exposed to high levels of the chemical in talcum powder. Dioxin is an unwanted byproduct of trichlorophenol, a constituent of hexachlorophene.

When the CDC inspected the Verona plant site, NEPACCO was gone, but the tank used to store still bottoms was there, filled with 4,300 gallons of liquid. The CDC tested the material and found dioxin at 343,000 ppb. One CDC representative suggested that there was enough dioxin in the tank to kill everyone in the United States. State and federal authorities, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), focused their efforts on securing and cleaning the Verona site, working with Syntex, the company that had purchased Hoffman-Taff and was responsible for the site. After securing the tank, the most pressing problem was the disposal of the dioxin-contaminated material. One method was to incinerate it, but Missouri did not have any hazardous waste incinerators, and neighboring states threatened to block any attempts to transport the dioxin across state lines. Disposal of the dioxin was delayed until a suitable facility was found.

Dr. Phillips and the CDC investigators also identified another site where dioxin had been sprayed and where several homes were later built. Tests showed high levels of dioxin in the soil. While the CDC recommended that the site be excavated and the people moved, its report also indicated that the half-life of dioxin was one year. Based on the estimate that half of the dioxin would degrade naturally within a year, which was later found to be erroneous, Missouri officials decided to leave the soil intact and not to move anyone.

In 1979, the investigations took another turn. An anonymous tip reported that NEPACCO had buried drums of chemicals on a farm near the Verona plant. Hundreds of drums were uncovered, and dioxin was found in the soil samples. As at the Verona plant site, the first priority was to secure the drums and prevent further discharges before determining how to dispose of the dioxin.

A lack of financial and human resources and insufficient legal authority hindered authorities in their investigation. The federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which was designed to regulate the generation and disposal of hazardous waste, was passed in 1976, but the EPA was slow to enforce the requirements of the new law. Also, RCRA did not address problems associated with old, abandoned hazardous waste sites.

The gap in the law was closed several years later through the passage of the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, also known as the Superfund law. The Superfund law established a government fund for the investigation and cleanup of abandoned toxic waste sites, with strict liability provisions that allowed the government to recover the costs of the cleanups from the responsible parties. The law was based on the principle that those who threaten public health and the environment through the production and disposal of toxic wastes should be made to pay for the cleanup–the polluter pays principle.

As tough as the law was when it passed in December 1980, it immediately ran into headstrong opposition from the newly elected Reagan administration. Reagan was unsympathetic to environmental issues and immediately set out to diminish the effectiveness of the federal EPA by cutting resources, delaying regulatory actions, and reducing enforcement. These efforts to undercut the EPA, and the Superfund program in particular, were carried out by Anne Gorsuch, the head of the EPA, and Rita Lavelle, the head of the hazardous waste division. Both Gorsuch and Lavelle joined the EPA from jobs in industries that had been regulated by the EPA. Gorsuch had a reputation from her days as a Colorado legislator as someone who was deeply opposed to federal energy and environmental policies. Many viewed Gorsuch and Lavelle as foxes sent to guard the chicken coop.

The Reagan administration cut EPA funding by 17 percent, and Gorsuch abolished the enforcement office, dispersing the staff into other programs. Soon after Lavelle assumed control of the hazardous waste program, she met privately with industry representatives whose hazardous waste sites were being investigated by the EPA. The meetings led to claims that Lavelle was entering into sweetheart deals with companies to relieve them of the obligation to pay for the multimillion-dollar cleanup of these sites. When the Reagan administration refused to surrender EPA documents to Congress, it was seen as an attempt to hide such deals. There were also reports that the EPA was attempting to lower the standard for dioxin cleanups. This, and the reductions in staffing and resources mandated by Reagan, including laboratories needed to analyze samples, deepened the distrust of both the EPA and the Reagan administration felt by those trying to deal with the dioxin.

After reviewing all of the available records, including Judy Piatt’s record of where Bliss had sprayed, an EPA field investigator named Daniel Harris identified numerous sites all over Missouri that might be subject to dioxin contamination. The public demanded that the EPA take action to protect those exposed. Rita Lavelle stated repeatedly that no emergency existed, and that since not enough was known about dioxin, more studies were needed before action could be taken. When asked why some of the sites were not fenced, she infamously retorted that fences merely encouraged children to climb over them. Many saw these arguments as attempts to delay the process, as a denial of the seriousness of the dioxin exposure, and as an unwillingness to spend the Superfund money that Congress had appropriated.

The EPA’s handling of events in Missouri became an embarrassment in the fall of 1982 when an environmental organization, the Environmental Defense Fund, published a leaked EPA document that listed fourteen confirmed and forty-one suspected dioxin sites in Missouri, and reported that the EPA was going to clean up sites only if the level of dioxin exceeded 100 ppb, whereas the CDC was arguing for cleanups where the dioxin level was only 1 ppb. The town of Times Beach was included on the list. Piatt’s records indicated that Bliss’s trucks had sprayed his oil mixture on the dirt roads throughout the town. Bliss continued to spray Times Beach from 1972 through 1976. Since the town had the largest population of all the newly revealed sites, it received the most attention. Sampling began in late 1982. Residents in the town soon grew accustomed to people in white moon suits taking samples of the dirt on their streets.

Sampling was completed on December 3, 1982, which was fortunate, because on the following day Times Beach suffered its worst flood in history when the Meramec River overflowed. Residents of the town were evacuated, and it was several days before they could return. Even then, no cars were allowed, and the town was accessible only on foot or by boat. No one under sixteen was permitted to return at that point, and residents were warned to get tetanus shots, not to smoke because of leaking propane tanks, and to obey a curfew.

Many residents attended the town’s annual Christmas party at city hall, to celebrate the holiday and their safe return after the flood. At the dinner, the residents learned of the results of the samples taken by the EPA. They were shocked out of their holiday cheer. Dioxin had been found in the soil along roads and in backyards. The CDC advised that the people who had not yet returned because of the flood should stay away because of the dioxin, and that those who had returned should get out. Within days, police established roadblocks to prevent access to the town, and people in moon suits returned to take further samples. Times Beach quickly became Missouri’s Love Canal.

 

 

 

 

Courtesy artist Jim West

 

Despite the growing crisis in Times Beach, officials at the EPA headquarters remained dismissive. Lavelle insisted that there was no emergency. Others closer to the Reagan White House saw Lavelle herself as a disaster in the making. In January 1983 control over events in Times Beach was taken out of her hands.

Further tests conducted by the EPA indicated that dioxin was widespread throughout the town. Officials were uncertain about the health effects of exposure to low levels of dioxin in soil, and even more uncertain about how to dispose of it. The town was situated in a flood plain, and further flooding could spread the contamination. In the end, it was decided that buying the town would be more efficient than relocating the residents for an unknown period while the agencies figured out how to clean up and dispose of the dioxin.

The decision to buy out the town was announced at a press conference on February 22, 1983, by the EPA administrator Anne Gorsuch. The announcement was made to a room full of reporters, while the residents of Times Beach listened to a loudspeaker outside.

Within a few weeks, both Lavelle and Gorsuch were dismissed from the EPA for a variety of reasons, including their handling of Times Beach. Subsequently, in 1984, Lavelle was convicted of perjury before Congress, of obstructing a Congressional investigation, and of submitting a false statement. She spent four months in jail and served five years of probation.

Meanwhile, the people of Times Beach were stranded. They had to decide whether to stay and wait for the buyout and assume the risks to themselves and their children, or to get out. The authorities had indicated that staying was not safe, but no one could tell them how dangerous it would be to stay. If they chose to leave their homes, they had to find alternative living accommodations and pay for both those accommodations and their Times Beach homes. Businesses in Times Beach were lost, as were the jobs at those businesses. Parents attended countless meetings trying to figure what to do, where to go, for how long, and how to get some financial assistance. Every cough, sore, and fever experienced by the children of Times Beach was watched intently by their parents, always fearing that this was just the first symptom of some unknown disease. Pregnant women worried deeply about the consequences for their babies. For five families that moved away, it was soon discovered that the mobile home park they had moved to was another site that had been contaminated by Bliss. They were forced to move yet again.

The buyouts did not begin until August 1983 and ultimately cost more than $36 million, with the EPA paying 90 percent and the State of Missouri paying 10 percent of the costs. Based on the experience at Seveso, Italy, the state recommended that all the dioxin throughout Missouri be collected and stored in temporary facilities before being incinerated.

Since Times Beach contained over 50 percent of the dioxin in the state, and no one would be living there, it was the logical choice for a new incinerator. Once built, it burned more than 265,000 tons of dioxin-contaminated material, including over 37,000 tons from Times Beach. Syntex was responsible for most of the cleanup at Times Beach and the other sites in Missouri, including the construction of the incinerator, the construction of levees to protect the incinerator and related facilities from flooding, and the demolition and burying of Times Beach itself. By 1997 the cleanup was complete. With the settlement of personal injuries, the costs were close to $200 million.

Judy Piatt and her daughters eventually recovered on their claims against Bliss, IPC, and others. Bliss was prosecuted on a variety of charges, including illegal dumping and tax fraud, and was sentenced to a year in jail on the tax fraud conviction.

People typically visit the Route 66 State Park to pay homage to the famous national highway and perhaps to learn some of its history. Little do they know that the vast mound next to the picnic area, like some prehistoric burial ground, contains the remnants of the lives of some 2,000 people, including their Christmas decorations, their beds, their swing sets, the roofs over their heads–all buried in this spot.

 

Sources

“Times Beach, Missouri, 1982” from Robert Emmet Hernan, This Borrowed Earth: Lesson from the Fifteen Worst Environmental Disasters around the World (in English, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010; in Chinese, China Machine Press, 2011).

Natasha Geiling, “Former chemical industry attorney takes over EPA’s Superfund task force,” ThinkProress (29 May 2018).

NOTE:  In 2004, Rita Lavelle was convicted on federal charges of one count of wire fraud and two counts of making false statements to the F.B.I.  Lavelle committed these crimes in her personal business of environmental consultation.