ieBlog

European Environmental Bureau (EEB)

Happy 50th Anniverary!

Set up in 1974, the EEB is the largest network of environmental citizens’ organisations in Europe. Initially the Bureau was developed as a by-product of the European community economic integration but slowly evolved to an independent policy organization covering all aspects of environmental issues and European environmental law.  The European Council adopted, for example, more than 600 pieces of environmental law between 1970 and 2013, exceeding one act every month.

It currently consists of over 180 member organisations in 40 countries, including a growing number of networks, and representing some 30 million individual members and supporters.  It is headquartered in Brussels, and funded by the OECD, the UNEP, the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme, the Climate Works Foundation, and EU member state governments.

The EEB advocates for progressive policies to “create a better environment in the European Union and beyond through agenda setting, monitoring, advising on and influencing the way the EU deals with environmental problems.”  Such work focuses on a wide variety of issues, including climate change, biodiversity, pollution and waste prevention.

The EEB is seen as an umbrella organization that is open to NGOs active in dealing with the environment.  It includes a broad range of national members including the following from Ireland: An Taisce – The National Trust for Ireland; Feasta: the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability; FIE – Friends of the Irish Environment; IEN- Irish Environmental Network; IWT- Irish Wildlife Trust; SWAN- Sustainable Water Network; VOICE – Voice of the Irish Concern for the Environment; and Zero Waste Alliance Ireland.  The following organizations from the United Kingdom are members of the EEB: Green Alliance; LINK – Scottish Environment Link; Population Matters; RSPB – Royal Society for the Protection of Birds; The Restart Project; and, Woodland Trust.

“EEB runs working groups with its members, produces position papers on topics that are, or EEB feels should be, on the EU agenda, and represents its members in discussions with the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council.”

The EEB also reaches out to other groups, networks and campaigns that are focusing on specific issues and challenges, including mercury contamination and energy-related Coolproducts, as well as broader pan-European matters such as access to Justice, the Aarhus Convention and Sustainable Development.

As part of its engagement with others concerned about the protection of our environment, “The EEB supplies quality information to the public, its members and the European institutions through articles, reports and papers. It offers expert comment, analysis and recommendations on most of the latest environmental issues.”

In selecting which issues to address, the EEB evaluates a variety of criterion such as the impact a specific policy has on the environment, the EEB’s potential to make a difference on a policy level, public and media concern, or a project’s potential to get funded.

There are numerous academic publications that document environmental issues from highly technical perspectives.  But many of those deeply engaged in environmental issues, including individual members of the many organizations belonging to EEB, need clarity as much as details.  And one of the most important contributions of EEB has been been its commitment and success in presenting complex environmental issues in ways that are both accessible and accurate.

The EEB has provided that function for 50 years and we look forward to more of the same for another 50 years, and beyond.

 

Sources:

EU  Organisations, European Environmental Bureau bit.ly/3VlSHpv

Henning Deters, “European environmental policy at 50: Five decades of escaping decision traps?” Environmental Policy and Governance (Sept 2019).  bit.ly/4bL3sXA

Brittany Demogenes, “Best Climate Practice EU: The European Environmental Bureau,” Climate Scorecard (May 10, 2021). bit.ly/4dTlqJq

 

Low cost airlines pollute more than ever,

Ryan Air leads the way

More than three quarters of European aviation emissions aren’t subject to a carbon price, new study shows.

Ryanair is Europe’s top polluting airline for the third year in a row, a new study on 2023 aviation emissions by green group Transport & Environment (T&E) shows. Lufthansa and British Airways are the second and third biggest polluters, but are still below their pre-Covid levels of flying. Budget airlines Ryanair and Wizz Air polluted more than ever last year – far past their peak in 2019. Ryanair emitted 15 Mt of CO2 in 2023 – 23% higher than pre-Covid levels – whilst Wizz Air’s emissions grew 40% in that time. Ryanair’s emissions are equivalent to that of seven million petrol cars in a year.

In 2023, one flight out of four in Europe was operated by one of the three main low cost carriers (easyJet, Ryanair, Wizz Air), the analysis shows. In 2019, it was one out of five, showing that budget airlines are growing their market share in Europe. On the other hand, legacy carriers including Air France, Lufthansa, KLM and British Airways, have lost 2.8 pp market share since Covid.

Jo Dardenne, aviation director at T&E, explains: “The low cost business model is driving unsustainable growth in the sector. We were lured into thinking that airlines would build back better after Covid, but with this exorbitant increase of pollution by budget airlines, ‘green’ aviation will never see the light of day. Clean technologies, like sustainable aviation fuels, won’t be able to keep up with the growth of Ryanair, Wizz Air and others.”

Despite low-cost growth, legacy carriers and selected third country carriers are still responsible for the bulk of European aviation emissions (42.2%) because they fly long-haul. In fact, the study finds that 20 airlines (European legacy carriers and the biggest third country carriers) are responsible for a larger share of emissions than that of over 400 airlines flying from Europe combined.

Air France and Lufthansa paid for as little as 7 and 16% of their emissions last year, because of the limited scope of the European carbon markets and the free allowances given to airlines[1]. Without these exemptions, Lufthansa would have paid over €800 million for its CO2 emissions last year – yet ended up paying as little as €130 million. When broken down per tonne of CO2, Lufthansa paid a meager €13 and Air France, just €5. But even budget airlines, which must pay for a larger share of their emissions because they fly more intra-European routes, didn’t pay for half of their CO2, as a result of the free pollution permits given to them in 2023.

As a whole, as much as 78% of aviation’s CO2 emissions weren’t priced last year, because they didn’t fall under the scope of the carbon markets or they are given to airlines for free. And CO2 is just the tip of the iceberg, as non-CO2 emissions, which warm the planet at least as much as CO2 and are not yet subject to any pricing scheme.

“Flying is far too cheap. Whether we are talking of legacy carriers or budget airlines, the aviation sector is not paying enough for its carbon emissions. Over ten years after the carbon market was introduced for aviation, the system still falls short when it comes to incentivising a shift away from fossil flying. This absurd situation where a passenger pays more for their coffee at the airport than some airlines pay for their emissions must come to an end,” explains Jo Dardenne.

In 2023, Europe’s most frequented route was London-Dublin with approximately 44 flights a day (one-way), the study finds. On the second busiest route, London-Amsterdam Schiphol, which has a direct four-hour train alternative, more than 43 flights departed every day last year. The five most polluting routes departing from Europe were all intercontinental, meaning they are not priced under the EU, Swiss or UK’s carbon market, which only applies to flights within Europe. As a result, no airline had to pay for its emissions on the most polluting route departing from Europe – the London-Dubai leg – even though it accounted for 2.3 Mt of CO2 in 2023.

T&E calls for an extension of the ETS to all extra-European flights departing from a European airport as part of the revision of the EU law in 2026. This would correct the current situation where most aviation emissions are excluded from any effective carbon pricing mechanism. At the same time, policy makers should revise the kerosene tax under the Energy Taxation Directive and consider measures to reduce demand at European airports, to ensure the sector truly builds back better.

[1] The carbon markets for aviation (also known as Emissions Trading Scheme) in the EU, Switzerland and the UK apply to intra-European lights only, meaning that legacy carriers operating most of their flights outside of Europe don’t have to pay for the majority of their emissions.

 

For national data for France, Germany and UK see original publication in bit.ly/4biuIws

 

 

Europe’s transport sector set to make up almost half of the continent’s emissions in 2030

Since a peak in 2007, the transport sector has decarbonised three times slower than the rest of the economy, making it the ‘problem child’ of Europe’s climate efforts

Transport alone is set to make up nearly half of Europe’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2030, new Transport & Environment (T&E) analysis shows. European transport emissions have increased by more than a quarter since 1990, and T&E’s State of European Transport analysis finds that while emissions across the wider economy are already in decline, transport emissions continue to grow. Europe must start taking its transport emissions problem seriously if it is to achieve net zero in 2050, says T&E.

Explore the data

Since its peak in 2007, transport has been decarbonising more than three times slower than the rest of the economy. Under current climate policies its share could reach 44% of all GHG emissions by 2030, up from 29% today. Transport emissions in the EU are now more than 1000 MtCO2e, equivalent to the total emissions of Germany and the Netherlands combined. While transport emissions are unlikely to return to their most recent peak in 2019, unless additional measures are taken Europe will fail to reach net zero in 2050.

William Todts, Executive Director of T&E, said: “The good news is transport emissions in Europe have peaked. The bad news is other sectors are decarbonising three times faster. In 2030, nearly half of the continent’s emissions will come from mobility, making it the problem child of Europe’s climate efforts. Decarbonising the sector as quickly as possible is now vital if the continent is to reach zero by 2050.”

Cars burning petrol and diesel are the overwhelming source of transport emissions, accounting for more than 40%. Car dependence has increased since the 1990s, enabled by motorway building and a growing car fleet. Only recently are we starting to see a reduction in average car emissions as a wave of electric vehicles come to the market.

Aviation emissions have doubled in the past 30 years – faster than any other transport sector. The additional impact of aviation emissions from contrails potentially triples the climate impact of flying.

The analysis looks at the impact of the EU’s climate regulations in addressing runaway transport emissions, and finds that they will reduce transport emissions by just 25% compared to 1990 levels in 2040 and by 62% in 2050. Cars, vans and trucks bought between now and the mid-2030s will still be driving on European roads, burning petrol and diesel for years to come. Shipping operators have little incentive to increase their operational efficiency, and demand for flights, spurred on by increasing airport capacity, offsets any gains from green fuel uptake this decade.

T&E’s analysis highlights that as well as fully implementing key Green Deal policies, additional efforts will be needed to fully decarbonise transport. These include:

Preventing new and ever growing demand for transport, by halting new airport and motorway capacity expansion, is key to reducing the renewable energy required to decarbonise the sector.

Ambitious and binding electric vehicle sales targets for companies that own large fleets of vehicles are key to accelerating the transition to zero-emissions. Coupled with measures to prevent growth and to tackle the existing car stock, these could cut emissions by a further 213 MtCO2e savings in 2040.

Unlocking efficiency gains in the shipping sector could save an additional 93 MtCO2e in 2030, crucial for charting a course to zero emissions by mid century.

Direct electrification of road transport is more than 2 times more efficient than hydrogen power, and 4 times more efficient than using e-fuels. Europe cannot afford to waste renewable electrons.

Preliminary data shows that road transport emissions reduced by 8 MtCO2e last year and shipping by 5 MtCO2e. This reduction was undone by the continued rebound and growth of aviation emissions, which increased by 15 MtCO2.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Todts continued: “Cars, trucks and vans can be cheaply electrified with batteries and renewables. This is now some of the lowest hanging fruit in climate action. Planes and ships pose a tougher challenge, and require a big effort from fuel suppliers to scale green fuels like e-kerosene and ammonia, and a plan to eliminate aviation contrails. Putting an end to road and airport expansion makes the decarbonisation job a lot easier.”

 

Is the weather running AMOC in Ireland

Will Ireland be transformed into Iceland?

AMOC refers to the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, which is a large system of ocean currents where warm shallow water is moved north from the topics and then returned south by colder, deeper ocean currents.  Such movement of the ocean currents provides a more mild climate for Ireland than in equivalent territories at the same latitude which are not affected by AMOC.  The Gulf Stream is part of the AMOC.  To the extent the AMOC is disrupted or lessened, the weather in Ireland may turn into that of Iceland.

At a recent gathering to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the International Energy Agency Mary Robinson spoke of how the celebration was well deserved, but that “Actually, we’re not in as good a place as we need to be at all.”

In outlining many of the “very bad things [that]may happen” because of climate breakdown, she includes the disappearing coral reefs, and the disappearance of arctic ice and the permafrost.  She adds , “And now we have something new that I don’t recall them mentioning, which is the changes to the Gulf Stream,’  referring to the increasing risk from the weakening of the AMOC.  She notes in her as usual direct and most engaging manner: “For Ireland, that really would not be funny.”

Not funny indeed.

If the AMOC is disrupted or weakened, sea levels in the Atlantic will rise by a meter, flooding many coastal cities, and wet and dry seasons in the Amazon could reverse.  Temperatures across the globe would be transformed, with Europe becoming colder with less rainfall.  And the changes could be affected by a slow decline but then lead to a sudden collapse over fewer than 100 years.

Ireland is located at the same latitude as parts of Canada and Siberia and yet its climate is much warmer.  That’s in part because of the AMOC.  If the AMOC does weaken, even disappear, Ireland’s weather would be more artic than tropical. Good bye to palm and cabbage palm trees in southwestern Ireland.

But how likely is that the AMOC will weaken or disappear, and if it does what will Ireland’s weather be like?

When we first came across the AMOC several decades ago, there seemed to be a consensus among scientists, including in IPCC reports, that the weakening, and especially collapse of the AMOC, was a theoretical possibility but unlikely, maybe highly unlikely, in the 21st century.

Even the sixth IPCC report (2015-23) continued to suggest, with “medium confidence,” that the AMOC would not collapse before the end of the century

That position is shifting.

“A 2019 article from the UK Met Office found that while a total  AMOC shutdown this century is very unlikely, it does remain a possibility.”  Borlace, Just Have a think, climate solutions.

Recent research indicates that Greenland’s glaciers and Arctic ice sheets are melting faster than expected, poring freshwater into the sea and promoting decline in the AMOC.  Since 1950 there has been a 15% decline in the AMOC, which is now at its weakest state in more than a millennium.

Other research suggests that the tipping point for any decline or collapse will be reached between 2025 and 2095.

Others estimate a collapse of the AMOC to occur around mid-century under the current scenario of future emissions.

And if the collapse occurs, it will be quick.

If there is further weakening or a collapse of AMOC, what will it look like in Ireland?  One view is reflected  in the 2004 hit movie ‘The Day After Tomorrow,” which used the AMOC for the plot line.  See, Borlace.  The movie wildly exaggerated the effects so it is not worth relying on.  Alternatively we can look at the existing weather conditions in comparable cities at the same latitude and estimate the climate.

What we need is a thorough, detailed assessment of the range of conditions that Ireland could face as a result of the weakening or collapse of the AMOC.  Such a picture would differ from a view of Ireland with no changes in the AMOC.   That’s not a simple proposition, but at least it might suggest some scope of the changes.  For a simplistic example, a harsh cooling or freezing of the climate will demand extensive heating infrastructure while heating of the climate without any further weakening of the AMOC will demand extensive air conditioning.

 

Sources:

Daniel Murray, “Mary Robinson on Eamon Ryan’s international appeal and how to appease Irish farmers,” Business Post Ireland (16 Feb 2024).  bit.ly/3UMXFvw

Just have a think – climate solutions, with Dave Borlace, on “Abrupt global ocean circulations collapse.  Time to start prepping?” (11 Dec 2022)   www.youtube.com/watch?v=j2ETr6X1lOk

Sam Starkey, “An ocean current keeps Ireland warm. What could happen if it collapses?” Green News (11 August 2021).  bit.ly/3wCd1sH

Kevin O’Sullivan, “Collapse of Atlantic ocean current could turn Ireland’s climate into Iceland’s: potential changes to system known as Amoc would transform Ireland’s benign climate, Fianna Fáil senator warns,” The Irish Times (16 Feb 2024).

Doyle Rice, “Melting ice could create chaos in US weather and quickly overwhelm oceans, studies warn,” USA Today (9 Feb 2024). bit.ly/49vcyHp

Peter Ditlevsen and Susanne Ditlevsen, “Warning of a forthcoming collapse of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation,” Nature Communications (25 July 2023).  bit.ly/49ibjLj

 

The Times Beach, Missouri dioxin disaster and how it ended the career of Ronald Reagan’s Head of the US EPA, Anne Gorsuch Burford

Her son is US Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, who seems dedicated to following his mother in undermining the US EPA.

 

Below is the story of the Times Beach dioxin disaster, including how Anne Gorsuch Burford, and her chief assistant, ignored clear evidence of the risks of the dioxin to the people of Times Beach.

 

TIMES BEACH, MISSOURI

1982

Route 66, a highway running 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 (about 4,000 km) 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 era of the 1930s. This journey was depicted in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, where the road acquired the sobriquet of the “the mother road, the road of flight.” Later, traveling along Route 66 was viewed as a journey of discovery and adventure in the popular TV program Route 66, which ran from 1960 to 1964 and depicted the adventures of two friends and their Corvette.

The TV show was cancelled at about the same time that life was ebbing for Route 66. When the interstate superhighway system was designed and 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. A Route 66 State Park was opened near Eureka, Missouri, 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. A visitor center is included, with a small museum of Route 66 memorabilia. The park is not remarkable, except that near the picnic area is a vast mound covered with grass. The mound seems oddly out of place in this landscape, like some prehistoric burial ground. The mound is, in fact, the grave of the town of Times Beach, Missouri, torn down, bulldozed, and buried. Under the mound can be found the remains of three hundred houses, mobile homes, and thirty businesses, including the Easy Living Laundromat, the Western Lounge bar, City Hall, and the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church.  The remnants of the lives of some two thousand people, including their Christmas decorations, their beds, their swing sets, the roofs over their heads, their past are also buried under the mound.

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.

It all started in the late 1960s near Verona, Missouri. The Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Company, Inc., or NEPACCO, set up business in a portion of a manufacturing facility near Verona. The former operator and still owner of the site at that time was Hoffman-Taff, a company that made Agent Orange, the now infamous defoliant used by American forces in Vietnam. In the 1970s, Hoffman-Taff was acquired by a company called Syntex.

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 the hexachlorophene. At the end of the distillation process, liquid residues, known as still bottoms, accumulated and were stored in a black, 7,500-gallon tank.

At first, NEPACCO paid an experienced waste company to dispose of the still-bottom residues by incineration at a facility in Louisiana. But NEPACCO decided that it could cut disposal costs if it shopped locally. A company called ICP sold solvents to NEPACCO and its sales representative heard that NEPACCO was looking for a solution to its high-cost waste disposal problems. ICP contracted with NEPACCO for disposal of the still bottoms, though ICP knew little about waste disposal. ICP in turn subcontracted the disposal to Russell Bliss.  Bliss operated a waste oil business, mainly collecting used crankcase oil from gas stations and reselling the oil to refineries, recyclers, and anyone else who would pay for it. ICP charged NEPACCO $3,000 per load and paid Bliss $125 per load. IPC knew the material was potentially hazardous but did not know what was in it. IPC 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 tank 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 five or six truckloads of still bottoms from NEPACCO, each load containing 3,000-3,500 gallons.

Besides operating a waste oil business, Bliss collected exotic birds and antique cars, and also kept a stable of Appaloosa show horses. To keep the dust down, Bliss drained liquids from his storage tanks in Frontenac and sprayed the material around his horse farm. It worked quite well, and Bliss began to sell his dust-suppressant services.  One of the sites he sprayed was the Shenandoah Stable, near Moscow Mills, Missouri, owned by Judy Piatt and Frank Hampel. Piatt also kept Appaloosas, and she and Hampel knew Bliss from the horse-show circuit. They 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 got quite ill. Within a few days, five more horses lost their hair, developed sores, and became severely emaciated. At the same time, sparrows, cardinals, and woodpeckers began to drop from the rafters of the barns. It took hours to rake up all the dead birds. Then the horses began to die. Piatt complained to Bliss, blaming the deaths on his spraying. Bliss denied responsibility, and claimed that he was spraying only used motor oil.

Piatt and Hampel removed the top six inches of soil from around the arena to try to stem the flood of deaths, but to no avail. Then they removed another foot of soil, but the horses continued to die. Eventually sixty-two horses died or had to be destroyed.

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

A young veterinarian, Dr. Patrick Phillips, who at the time was a graduate student, 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 Center 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 problems similar to those at Shenandoah Stable.

Piatt and Hempel took action 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 kept a record of where Bliss sprayed or disposed of materials, and she and Hempel kept 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, who had continued to work together on this mystery, learned about another stable, the Timberline Stable, where similar problems 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 tissue and soil samples from Shenandoah Stable, and this time the agency found traces of trichlorophenol (TCP) in the soil samples. TCP was known to be 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 further, more complicated tests and confirmed their suspicions. The soil contained tetrachlorodibezo-p-dioxin, or 2,3,7,8-TCDD, or, more commonly, dioxin. In fact, the soil samples contained over 30,000 parts per billion of dioxin. At this time, dioxin was known to be deadly to animals, even in small doses, but little was known about its effects on humans, and there was as yet 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 about dioxin, although he himself had only that day learned about it. None of them knew how dangerous dioxin was, and had heard of it only vaguely in connection 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 source. 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 examined Defense Department records to identify facilities in Missouri that could have made Agent Orange or TCP. Several facilities were found in Missouri, including the Hoffman-Taff facility, 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 that company operated at the Verona site. 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 federal 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. 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 purchased Hoffman-Taff and as a result became 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 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, i.e., half of the dioxin would degrade naturally within a year. Based on the half-life estimate, 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 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.

Thanks to the aggressive pursuit of the dioxin trail by an EPA field investigator, Daniel Harris, the full scope of Bliss’s spraying operation finally came to light.  After reviewing all of the available records, including Judy Piatt’s record of where Bliss sprayed, Harris identified numerous sites all over Missouri that might be subject to dioxin contamination. A lack of financial and human resources, and insufficient legal authority, hindered authorities in their investigation. The federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), designed to regulate the generation and disposal of hazardous waste was passed in 1976, but 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 after RCRA through the passage of the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as the Superfund law. The Superfund law established a government fund for the investigation and clean up of abandoned toxic waste sites, with severe 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 produced the toxic wastes and disposed of them in such a way as to threaten public health and the environment 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 Reagan administration, which entered office in January 1981. Reagan was wholly 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 EPA, and the Superfund program in particular, were carried out by the head of EPA, Anne Gorsuch, and the head of the hazardous waste division, Rita Lavelle.  Both Gorsuch and Lavelle joined EPA from jobs in industries that had been regulated by EPA. Gorsuch had a reputation from her days as a Colorado legislator as someone deeply opposed to federal energy and environmental policies. They were viewed by many as foxes sent to guard the chicken coop.

Gorsuch abolished the enforcement office and dispersed 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 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 multi-million dollar cleanup of these sites. When the Reagan administration refused to surrender EPA documents to Congress, the refusal was seen as an attempt to hide such deals. There were also reports that EPA was attempting to lower the standard for dioxin cleanups. The Reagan administration cut EPA funding by seventeen percent. The reductions in staffing and resources mandated by Reagan, including laboratories needed to analyze samples, contributed to the problems at EPA and deepened the distrust of EPA and the Reagan administration by those trying to deal with the dioxin.

As dioxin contamination was discovered at more and more sites in Missouri in the early 1980s, and people demanded that EPA take action to protect those exposed, Rita Lavelle asserted that not enough was known about dioxin, that more studies were needed before action could be taken, and stated repeatedly that no emergency existed. When asked why some of the sites were not fenced, she infamously retorted that fences merely encouraged children to climb over them. Such arguments were seen as attempts to delay the process, as a denial of the seriousness of the dioxin exposure, and an unwillingness to spend the Superfund money that Congress appropriated.

EPA’s handling of events in Missouri became an embarrassment in the fall of 1982 when an environmental organization, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), published a leaked EPA document that listed fourteen confirmed and forty-one suspected dioxin sites in Missouri, and reported that EPA was going to clean up sites only if the level of dioxin exceeded 100 parts per billion (ppb), whereas the CDC was arguing for cleanups where the dioxin level was only 1ppb. 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 that ran throughout the town.  Bliss continued to spray the town from 1972 through 1976. Since the town had the largest population of all the newly revealed sites, it received the most attention and sampling began in late 1982. Residents in the town soon had to get used to people in white moon suits taking samples of the dirt on their streets.

Sampling was completed on December 3, 1982. That was fortunate because on December 4, 1982, 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 EPA. They were shocked out of their holiday cheer. Dioxin had been found in the soil along roads and in backyards in the town. The CDC advised that the people who had not yet returned because of the flood should stay away because of the dioxin, and 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.

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

Further tests conducted by the EPA indicated that dioxin was widespread throughout the town. The town was situated in a flood plain, and further flooding could spread the contamination. Moreover, there was uncertainty about the health effects of exposure to low levels of dioxin in soil, and even greater uncertainty about how to dispose of it. Officials 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 the dioxin, and how and where to dispose of it.

The decision to buy out the town was announced at a press conference on February 22, 1983, by EPA’s administrator Anne Gorsuch Burford, only recently married. The announcement was made to a room full of reporters, while those directly affected, the residents of Times Beach, had to listen to a loudspeaker outside.

Within a few weeks, Mrs. Burford was pressured into resigning from EPA, and Lavelle left as well, for a variety of reasons, including their handling of Times Beach.  Subsequently, Lavelle was convicted of perjury before Congress, obstructing a Congressional investigation, and 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, especially, their children, or get out. The authorities already 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 the interim living and the costs of their Times Beach homes. If they left, the children had to adjust to new schools and new friends. Businesses in Times Beach were lost, as were the jobs at those businesses. Parents attended countless meetings with agencies 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 fetuses. Whenever people did get away from thinking about the risks, they would be reminded by others who shunned them because they were from Times Beach and were perhaps contaminated in some unknown way. For five families, getting away was of no help. The mobile home park they moved to was found to be another site sprayed by Bliss. They had to be temporarily relocated from their new home.

The buyout cost more than $36 million, with EPA paying ninety percent and the State of Missouri paying ten percent of the costs. A legal dispute arose over which agency would assume title to the properties, and the buyouts did not begin until August 1983.

Once the residents were permanently relocated, the governments explored various options for addressing the dioxin problems at Times Beach, as well as throughout Missouri. The experience at Seveso, Italy was helpful to the American authorities. The state recommended that all the dioxin throughout Missouri be collected and stored in temporary facilities, and then incinerated at a new facility to be built in Times Beach. Since Times Beach contained over fifty percent of the dioxin in the state, and no one would be living there, the location was the logical choice. The incinerator burned more than 265,000 tons of dioxin-contaminated material, including over 37,000 tons from Times Beach. Syntex, the successor to Hoffman-Taff, was responsible for most of the cleanup at Times Beach and the other sites in Missouri, including the construction of levees to protect the incinerator and related facilities from flooding, the construction of the incinerator, and the demolition and burying of Times Beach itself. With the settlement of personal injuries, the costs were close to $200,000,000. 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. By 1997, the cleanup was complete, and the State Park was opened in 1999.

When people visit the Route 66 State Park, they can pay homage to the famous national highway that disappeared because it became outdated and replaced by the new system of interstate highways. They also can pay their respects to the deceased town of Times Beach, victim of another form of progress — the production of chemicals and their unwanted byproducts.

 

Originally published in Robert Emmet Hernan, 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.

 

Editorial Afterword:

In her memoir, Anne Gorsuch Burford described how her son, now US Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, was upset that his mother agreed to step down from EPA because, in his view, his mother was only doing what President Reagan wanted her to do.  That’s true, in the sense that Regan wanted to dismantle and defund the EPA, and she certainly adopted policies and procedures to do just that.  But her disregard for the safety and health of the people of Times Beach betrayed her, and Reagan.  It seems her son blames EPA for what his mother did, or for what happened to her.

Certainly his career shows “his own brand of defiance and anti-regulatory fervor.”

See Joan Biskupic, “Neil Gorsuch has a grudge against federal agencies.  He holds their fate in his hands,” CNN (17 Jan 2024).   bit.ly/3HCzkjZ  See also, David Helvarg, “At EPA, Ann[e] Gorsuch tried to trash the agency. On SCOTUS, her son Neil Gorsuch is succeeding, “ Red Green and Blue (13 July 2022).   bit.ly/3vZtVkM