Dioxin continues to haunt Mark Little and his neighbors on North Second Street
BY C.D. STELZER
first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Sept. 21, 1994
As dusk gathered on North Second Street last Friday,
Mark Little leaned on a post in his front yard and
talked about the past week. "It's been a never-ending
nightmare. All I know is, I'm getting screwed from the
insurance company all the way down. This is the day
they're doing something."
Little, a 32-year-old pipefitter, was born and
raised on this block. Over time, he has watched the
neighborhood change. There are more vacant lots now,
fewer children playing in the street, but somehow he
never thought it would get this bad.
A lot of stuff goes through your mind when you grow
up with it," says Little, taking a drag off a Marlboro
cigarette. In the fading light, he has cocked his
Chicago White Sox baseball cap high on his forehead. As
he reflects on his fate, Little occasionally gazes at
the nearby source of his problems.
There are rust warning signs posted on the cyclone
fence across the street. The property was once the
location of the former East Texas Motor Freight Co., one
of 27 dioxin sites in Eastern Missouri, according to the
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Dioxin has long
been considered the most toxic manmade chemical.
The site is among a handful of former truck
transfer terminals in the city that waste oil hauler
Russell Bliss sprayed with dioxin-contaminated oil in
the early 1970s. The EPA took soil samples at the site
and the surrounding area seven or eight years ago,
including dust from inside Little's vacuum cleaner, he
says. But he didn't hear from the agency again until
Late on the night of Sept. 9, a water main up the
block from Little's old brick bungalow broke. The
ensuing deluge forced dioxin-contaminated soil into the
street and onto his property. The Helping Hands
Recycling Center, an employer of disabled persons at
4205 N. Second , was also affected.
The EPA didn't arrive to begin testing until the
following Monday morning, says Little. On Tuesday the
agency returned to take more samples. At that time, the
EPA informed him that dioxin in his basement was above
acceptable levels, Little says.
A spokesperson for the agency told The Riverfront
Times late last week that "the highest hit we had was a
composite sample of 2.8 or 2.4 (parts per billion). Our
action level in a residential area is 1 part per
billion." So the EPA's cleanup of the site has been
limited. One of Little's neighbors, for example, told
the RFT that the only action taken to remove
contaminated dirt from nearby Douglass Street was to
wash it down with a hose.
Little is confused by the EPA's unexplained levels
of contamination and disturbed by their slow response.
The pipefitter has already lost a week's wages and has
been forced to live without gas or electricity, he says.
In addition, his insurance company refused to pay
because it ruled the accident a flood.
Last Friday evening, a cleanup truck was parked in
front of Little's house, and plastic hoses snaked
through the yard and into the basement. By Sunday, the
EPA's work had been completed, a week after the accident
occurred. But the operation was far from unflawed ,
according to Little.
Over the weekend, dioxin-contaminated articles, which
had been removed from his basement and placed in
dumpsters, were carted off by scavengers, he says. "Half
the people in the neighborhood are picking through it,"
says Little. "Hell, I watched them take my washer and
dryer. Nobody did a thing about it."
The emergency response on Second Street came only
two days before the release of a long-awaited EPA
reassessment of the dangers of dioxin. That report
reaffirms that the substance is a potential human
carcinogen and in addition, causes damage to the
hormonal, immune and reproductive systems.
The EPA is now suggesting this latest incident is
yet another reason to proceed with the construction of a
dioxin incinerator at Times Beach. That plan has been
strongly opposed by both environmental activists and
elected officials. They say that incineration itself
produces dioxin and that the current technology is
incapable of meeting the EPA's own stringent standards.
According to the terms of the 1990 consent decree
for the Eastern Missouri cleanup, the liable party,
Syntex Agribusiness Technologies, agreed to pay $118
million to dispose of the dioxin-tainted dirt. That
agreement, however, is contingent on the use of
incineration. Because of this, the EPA and the Missouri
Department of Natural Resources have thus far refused to
consider what may be a safer alternative technology
already accepted for use at another EPA dioxin site.
Earlier this year, the EPA amended its decision of
record at the Koppers Superfund site in Morrisville,
N.C. in favor of a disposal method called base-catalyzed
decomposition (BCD). Prior to testing, the agency had
selected incineration as the preferred method of
treatment at the North Carolina site.
Meanwhile, back on Second Street, Little wonders
about his future. "They're saying after they get this
cleaned up it's OK," says Little, referring to the EPA's
reassurances. But he has his doubts. "Who says the
government testing is right? Who's check on them? Who
knows what it is going to do to me in years to come? he
Little's concerns are warranted. Last year, the family
of the late Alvin J. Overmann collected a $1.5 million
settlement in a dioxin case that began in 1988.
Overmann, a St. Louis Teamster, died in 1984 of soft
tissue sarcoma, a rare cancer associated with dioxin
exposure. He had been employed at Jones Truck Lines, one
of the St. Louis truck terminals sprayed in the 1970s.
The tainted oil was provided by Bliss Oil Co., which
sold it as a dust suppressant. The Overmann case was
settled out of court at the same time as 400 Times Beach
cases. The defendants in the case included Syntex USA,
Syntex Agribusiness, Northeastern Pharmaceutical and
Chemical Co., (NEPACCO) and Independent Petrochemical
In the early 1970s, Bliss worked as subcontractor
for IPC. IPC was in charge of disposing of dioxin from
NEPACCO's Verona, Mo. plant. The dioxin was an unwanted
byproduct created in the manufacturing of
hexachlorophene, an antiseptic. NEPACCO leased its
facility from Hoffman-Taff, a chemical company that
produced a component of Agent Orange at the same
location. Agent Orange was a defoliant used in the
Vietnam War; it also contained dioxin. Syntex later
bought Hoffman-Taff. Bliss disposed of 18,000 gallons of
the dioxin from the Southwest Missouri plant by mixing
it with waste oil and spraying it on unpaved roads,
stable and truck terminals in Eastern Missouri.
In a case predating Overmann's that is pending in
St. Louis Circuit Court, 52 plaintiffs are suing Bliss,
Syntex, IPC, NEPACCO and others. The suit was brought by
other Jones Truck Line employees or their surviving
family members. The plaintiffs are seeking at least $5
Computerized records at the St. Louis Circuit Court
Clerk's office still list the suit Henningsen vs. IPC,
as being dismissed in 1990, even though it was
reinstated more than eight months ago. According to a
hard copy of the state appeals court decision, then
presiding Judge James J. Gallagher improperly removed
the dioxin case and other civil suits from the docket
for failure to prosecute. The plaintiffs' attorneys were
not informed of the court action for more than a year.
"The (dismissal) letter was faxed to the (circuit court)
clerk's office in St. Louis and appears to have been
misplaced," says Glenn Bradford, an attorney who
formerly represented plaintiffs in the case. At the
time, Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. was the court clerk.
The potential for further litigation still exists.
In 1983, a study by Teamster Local 600 estimated that
700 workers were employed at three of the truck
terminals that were then confirmed dioxin sites. Health
problems associated with dioxin exposure can often take
decades to develop.
To protect their interests, IPC hired the law firm
of Lewis, Rice and Fingersh, the same partnership that
represents the Pulitzer Publishing Co., owner of the St.
Louis Post-Dispatch .
Syntex, on the other hand, has been defended by the
silk-stocking firm of Armstrong and Teasdale.
Syntex, the liable party for the cleanup of the 27
dioxin sites in Eastern Missouri, has an interesting
corporate history. The company was formed in Mexico City
in 1944 and is incorporated in Panama. The founder of
the company, Penn State chemist Russell Marker,
synthesized the sex hormone progesterone from the roots
of the barbasco plant. That plant is native to the
jungles of southwestern Mexico. In the 1960s, Syntex
made a fortune in the burgeoning birth-control-pill
Last month, Syntex was purchased for $5.3 billion
by Roche Holdings, a Swiss pharmaceutical conglomerate
that is branching out into biotechnology and genetic
engineering. The company behind Roche, Hoffman-La Roche
also made the hallucinogenic drug quinuclidinyl
benzilate (BZ) at its Nutley, N.J. factory and provided
it to the Army for testing.
In 1976, an explosion at a Hoffman-La Roche
chemical plant in Seveso, Italy, caused widespread
dioxin contamination,. New studies have found increased
rates of leukemia, lymphoma and liver cancer among
people exposed to the dioxin.
Consider this: A drug dealer that is responsible
for one of the world's worst environmental disasters has
just purchased the cleanup rights to Times Beach.