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.




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).  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).







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