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Times Beach, in the early 1970s, was a small suburban town in Missouri with a growing population of 1,240 people . In the summer, Times Beach residents were irritated with the town's dusty roads. To deal with the problem, the city hired a contractor to spray the roads with waste oil to keep down the dust. What the city did not realize was that the contractor had unknowingly mixed the waste oil with the highly toxic industrial byproduct, dioxin. Within the span of ten years (from 1972 to 1982) Times Beach transformed from a growing, middle class beach to a ghost town. eventually the town had to be evacuated. This chapter investigates how the town of Times Beach went from a bubbling summer resort to a dioxin-contaminated ghost town. In this chapter, we limit our investigation to the main players responsible for the contamination of Times Beach and what ethical behaviors were involved in their decisions.
Watch this episode of Engineering Disasters from History Channel for more background on Times Beach: Times Beach, Missouri Disaster Video
The main players involved in the contamination of Times Beach, were the Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Company Inc.(NEPACCO), the Independent Petrochemical Corporation (IPC) and business man Russell Bliss. As a result of their actions, dioxin was produced, transported and sprayed on the roads of Times Beach.
The Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Company (NEPACCO) was a pharmaceutical and chemical manufacturer that leased a manufacturing plant in Verona, Missouri during the late 1960s. They produced hexachlorophene, a popular disinfectant used in a variety of medical applications. NEPACCO's process for manufacturing hexachlorophene produced a number of different byproducts. One of the by-products was dioxin, a very toxic chemical that was also a by-product of Agent Orange, a chemical used by the Air Force as part of a chemical warfare program during the Vietnam War.
The production of hexachlorophene produced three types of dioxin contaminated waste: wastewater, filter clay, and still-bottoms.NEPACCO originally disposed of the wastewater by directing it into their parent company's water-treatment plant. Once it was discovered the dioxin contaminated wastewater was leaking into a nearby stream, NEPACCO began paying the Water and Wastewater Technical School in Neosho, Missouri 2.5 cents per gallon to remove the waste water, which was then stored in a concrete lined basin. The dioxin contaminated filter clay and still-bottoms were placed into large barrels and buried at the plant. NEPACCO later disposed of these by contracting a professional waste disposal company in Louisiana to incinerate it. However, this was an expensive way to dispose of the waste, and NEPACCO sought cheaper alternatives. NEPACCO paid James Denny $150 to bury 90 barrels of waste on his farm. However, due to the large volume of waste, this was not a viable long term solution. So, NEPACCO hired the Independent Petrochemical Corporation (IPC) to arrange for the disposal of the waste.
The Independent Petrochemical Corporation (IPC) was a small, Missouri-based solvent supplier and a branch of the much larger Charter Corporation . IPC supplied NEPACCO with chemical solvents and, when NEPACCO needed a cheaper solution for waste disposal, accepted an offer of $3000 per load of to haul away and dispose of the waste material. IPC, allegedly unaware or the dioxin components in the waste, subcontracted the hauling and waste disposal to Russell Bliss of Bliss Oil for $150 per load. This arrangement clarifies that IPC and Bliss knew the waste was hazardous, as oil haulers were paid only for disposing of hazardous oil . IPC subcontracted Bliss Oil in the early 1970s, thereby facilitating the "disposal" of 18,000 gallons of waste oil - a total of 6 loads . Thus, IPC made a profit of $17,100 as the middle-man in the waste disposal process compared to Bliss Oil's $900 profit.
Russell Bliss was an uneducated, self-made millionaire. At the age of 48, he owned a 200-acre farm of prize-winning show horses and several custom-made cars . He earned his riches from his waste oil hauling business. His chief business was collecting waste oil from service stations and storing it in tanks on his farm in Frontenac Missouri. He would resell the oil to refineries, recyclers or use it as burner oil. IPC sub-contracted the NEPACCO job to Russell Bliss to get rid of the dioxin. They knew the material was potentially hazardous, but they did not know it contained dioxin. IPC sent him a sample of the hazardous material which he dipped a napkin in, lit on fire, and concluded it seemed like heavy grease . Between the February 1971 and October 1971, Bliss collected 6 truckloads at about $125 per load  totaling 18,500 gallons of dioxin contaminated still-bottom . He mixed most of the dioxin with the waste oil he had at his farm. Bliss sprayed the mixture of waste oil and dioxin on his farm after he realized that waste oil was better at keeping the dust down in the stables than water. He began offering his spraying services to other stable owners; a notable one being Shenadoah stables owned by Judy Piatt and Frank Hempel. Bliss sprayed Shenadoah Stables in May 1971, a day later a horse fell ill. In the next several days, horses fell sick and died, cats dogs and birds were also afflicted. Piatt's daughters who played in the stable, became very sick.Piatt and Hempel confronted Bliss in mid-July with suspicions that his spraying had caused the illnesses at the stable. He assured them that his oil was not the problem. This was one of the first notable reactions to the dioxin. In the summers of 1972 and 1973, Bliss was hired by the city of Times Beach to spray the roads to keep the dust down.
The EPA became involved in the Times Beach crisis in 1979 when a former NEPACCO employee tipped them off about the barrels of dioxin waste buried on James Denny's farm. After unearthing the barrels on Denny's farm, the EPA began testing soil samples in surrounding areas. High concentrations of dioxin were found in a number of sites around Missouri where Bliss had sprayed the waste. There was an immediate outcry from the residents, "What about our children? What shall we do now? Is it safe to clean up our homes." The EPA forced the 2,041 residents of Times Beach to evacuate in 1982 . After years of cleanup, Times Beach is now a state park along Route 66. The EPA reports that there is no longer any health risks to visitors of the park..
In 1972, hexachlorophene was banned by the FDA after it caused the death of 36 infants in France. NEPACCO was forced to abandon the Verona plant, whose main product was hexachlorophene. As a result of its absence from Times Beach during most of the actual spraying, NEPACCO was able to avoid much of the legal backlash from the incident. However, in 1986, the courts did rule that NEPACCO must reimburse the EPA for $350,000 of the costs needed to remove the waste that had been buried at the farm of James Denny. NEPACCO also paid Judy Piatt $65,000 for damages to her and her family.
IPC faced the worst of the ensuing litigation. IPC was taken to court in 57 civil actions filed by more than 1,600 claimants . In these 57 civil action claims, IPC was sued for $4 billion in bodily injuries and property damage and $4 billion in punitive damages . In 1983, the Environmental Protection Agency declared Times Beach a Superfund site  and held IPC liable for a portion of the approximately $110,000,000 worth of remediation costs . IPC sought coverage from Aetna, their insurance provider, but courts unanimously held IPC liable for paying the costs of remediation and damages from civil action law suits .
As a result of the Times Beach situation, IPC was forced out of business and the larger Charter Corporation declared bankruptcy . The Charter Company, primarily an oil and insurance conglomerate, decided to sell its remaining oil operations in a management buyout , using the buyout money to pay settlements and court costs. The company then began to focus its operations in the entertainment industry with Spelling Entertainment (responsible for the hit 1990s TV series "Beverly Hills 90210").
Russell Bliss faced several law suits following the Times Beach contamination. Judy Piatt and Frank Hempel sued him for injuries and loss of their horses  and settled for $10,000. Residents of various dioxin dump sites sued him for millions of dollars . He was also denied a license to transport hazardous waste material by the Missouri Waste Managements Commission  as was his son . In 1983 Russell Bliss was indicted for violating federal income tax laws  unrelated to the dioxin contamination.
Through all this, Bliss said he had no idea that the waste he got from IPC/NEPACCO contained dioxin. When asked in an interview if he had any idea what he was spraying, he said "The only thing I knew I was spraying was waste oil...And I asked them, 'What do you people make here?' They made ladies' face cleanser. Would you be suspicious of oil that came out of machines that made ladies' face cleanser?"
Passing the Buck
The main players involved in this incident attempted to abdicate from their responsibility. NEPACCO failed to find a proper disposal method for their waste. Instead, they hired IPC (who was not equipped) to dispose of it, after which they didn't check to see how IPC disposed of the waste. IPC failed similarly. They passed their responsibility to Russell Bliss who did not have the knowledge to identify the substance. IPC knew the substance was hazardous but did not take on the responsibility of finding out what it contained. IPC claimed they believed Bliss was disposing of the waste at an incinerator but made no efforts to verify this.
The players all demonstrated willful ignorance. NEPACCO was satisfied to let IPC take responsibility for the waste and turned a blind eye once it was out of their hands. IPC operated in the same pattern. They did not follow-up with Bliss on his disposal methods. Bliss failed to ask the important questions. He didn't ask about the waste he was disposing and he didn't take any steps to find out what it was. He decided the waste behaved like heavy grease, so it must be heavy grease. After the contamination became known, people of Times Beach started putting bumper stickers on their cars that said "Ignorance is Bliss".
All of the players failed to perform their duties to the people of Missouri. NEPACCO had a responsibility to keep the people safe by ensuring proper disposal of the waste. Although NEPACCO did eventually hire IPC to dispose of the waste, they still failed to ensure that proper disposal procedures were being adhered to by IPC. IPC was guilty of attempting to perform a task that was not their duty(disposing the waste from NEPACCO) and not doing their due diligence when the sub-contracted to Bliss(failing to ensure that Bliss was properly disposing of the waste). Bliss failed to properly test and understand the nature of the waste chemicals he was hauling.
Ability vs. Expertise
Although IPC and Bliss had the ability to get rid of the waste, they did not have the expertise needed to handle such dangerous and sensitive material. Neither of them understood what the waste was or how to properly test it. Although IPC knew the material was potentially hazardous, they did not take safety precautions or make an effort to determine for themselves what the material was. Bliss did not have the expertise needed to test the material. His test was to dip a napkin in it and see whether or not it burned.
- Turner, A. (1995), But is it true? : a citizen's guide to environmental health and safety issues, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, http://books.google.com/books?id=Bg2f9CyXwscC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ViewAPI#v=onepage&q&f=false
- [https://bulk.resource.org/courts.gov/c/F2/944/944.F2d.940.89-5368.89-5367.html INDEPENDENT PETROCHEMICAL CORPORATION, et al., Appellants, v. AETNA CASUALTY AND SURETY COMPANY, et al.], September 13, https://bulk.resource.org/courts.gov/c/F2/944/944.F2d.940.89-5368.89-5367.html
- Hernan, R. (2010), This Borrowed Earth: Lessons from the Fifteen Worst Environmental Disasters Around the World, http://books.google.com/books?id=C7x7JGtiQ5MC&dq
- "BUSINESS SIDELINE PUTS OIL DEALER IN THE SPOTLIGHT IN MISSOURI'S DIOXIN CASE", The New York Times, January 24, http://www.nytimes.com/1983/01/24/us/business-sideline-puts-oil-dealer-in-the-spotlight-in-missouri-s-dioxin-case.html#
- "Route 66 State Park in Eureka Cleared by EPA Officials", Eureka-Wildwood, November 20, http://eureka-wildwood.patch.com/articles/route-66-state-park-in-eureka-cleared-by-epa-officials?logout=true
- "Independent Petrochemical Corp. v. Aetna Casualty & Sur. Co.", The Environmental Law Reporter, December 12, http://elr.info/litigation/%5Bfield_article_volume-raw%5D/20983/independent-petrochemical-corp-v-aetna-casualty-sur-co