The specter of dioxin continues to haunt Missouri

published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Aug. 13, 1997


Dan Harris stood next to a home on Lemar Drive in Ellisville on Monday afternoon surveying the situation, his lanky frame hunched over a transit connected to a tripod. As he methodically measured the area, TV reporters scrambled across a nearby front yard interviewing residents about the dioxin that had been discovered in an adjacent gravel driveway.

For Harris, who works for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the scene around him must have been like being recast as an extra in a movie in which he previously played a leading role. Harris had forecast this setting in 1981, when he led the EPA’s investigation of possible dioxin sites in Eastern Missouri. At that time, he suspected that all of the dioxin sites in the region had not yet been discovered. He repeatedly warned his superiors of that possibility and they censured him for trying to do his job.

Earlier this summer, the EPA shut down the dioxin incinerator at Times Beach with much fanfare. Federal and state officials heralded the event as the end of the dioxin legacy in the state. The incineration of the contaminated soil from 28 sites had been completed, and Bob Feild, the EPA project manager for the cleanup, took pride in the thoroughness of the agency’s response. “We investigated over 400 sites, followed up every lead,” said Feild. “We feel virtually certain all the potential sites have been identified and located.”

But within weeks of that announcement, an Ellisville resident came forward with independent test results showing dioxin to be present at up to 195 parts per billion in the gravel driveway off of Lemar Court. The EPA has set the level of concern for dioxin at one part per billion. Discovery of the new site raises questions as to whether there are more dioxin contaminated locations in the area waiting to be found. It is a question that Harris raised fifteen years ago.

When asked to comment about the latest turn of events, Harris declined. “I think you better talk to Hattie,” says Harris, referring to Hattie Thomas, an EPA spokeswoman who was present at the Lemar site on Monday. By way of explanation, Harris adds: “I’ve been demoted twice from this job.”

Harris’ early actions forced the EPA and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) into addressing Missouri’s dioxin catastrophe, and turned the situation into a national issue. He was rewarded by being removed from his leadership position in March 1982. Prior to his demotion, Harris wrote a report in which he stated that there was no assurance that other dioxin contamination would not be found. “It is apparent that this investigation is far from completion,” Harris wrote. “The record does not provide assurance that the public and the environment is protected from low-level, long-term exposure.” In a 1983 interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Harris said he was never informed as to why he was replaced, but he did speculate that the EPA was trying to “bury the whole investigation” because it “was tired of finding dioxin sites.”

Unlike Harris, some careers have improved by underplaying the problem. One Post-Dispatch reporter, for example, who covered the Times Beach story during in the early 1980s, later went to work for Fleishman-Hillard. Her duties for the St. Louis public relations firm included the Syntex account, the company held liable for the dioxin contamination in the state.

None of this matters to Charles Bradley, who lives directly next to the new dioxin site. The 66-year-old retired boilermaker has more important things to be concerned about. “I’d like to see it cleaned up and get it out of here,” says Bradley of the dioxin. Bradley, who has lived on Lemar for 31 years, has lymphatic cancer. His wife has cancer of the mouth.

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