Last Stand at Times Beach

updated 07/01/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/01/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Even today on back roads outside Times Beach, Mo. motorbikes and pickup trucks leave wakes of limestone dust, thick clouds of gritty powder that choke the countryside. It's easy to understand why city officials back in 1972 hired a salvage-oil dealer to spray the unpaved roads within the city limits. The man was Russell Bliss, and he was resourceful. He got paid by a chemical plant to haul away sludge, and he combined that with waste oil. The strange mixture that Bliss then slathered on the roadways lay there for more than a decade.

Times Beach was blue collar and semirural back then, not exactly thriving but doing well enough for a tiny city (pop. about 2,000) precariously located on a flood plain. The Meramec River overflowed occasionally but not so frightfully that anyone thought of moving out, not with property reasonable and St. Louis only 25 miles away.

Then came the flood of December 1982, a disaster worse than anyone could remember, washing small homes off foundations and carrying mud up two stories, where it settled on five-piece bedroom sets. While most of the residents were outside the city waiting for the waters to recede, the federal government made an extraordinary announcement: The streets of Times Beach were soaked with dioxins, the most deadly substance ever produced in a laboratory. The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta urged everybody who was out of town to stay out and warned everybody else to get out because the streets were potentially lethal. Bliss had single handedly, even if accidentally, proved that the road to hell is not paved at all.

Eventually everybody left Times Beach, everybody except George Klein, 71, and his wife, Ida Lorene, 61. Married 43 years ago, they always have lived in the same steel-sided white house, tending their garden, plucking apples and cherries from their trees, watching fat bumblebees pollinate their purple locust. They lost their peaches in a freeze once and their strawberries in the flood, but they haven't lost anything to dioxin except their neighbors, who all moved away.

It's not often that the Kleins entertain. Only one road to Times Beach is still open, and that is blocked by a checkpoint where polite but insistent armed security guards turn sightseers away. Nobody who visits the Kleins' home presents much of an appearance either since the guards ask anyone entering the city to wear a disposable body suit.

The mail gets through; it just doesn't get close. The Kleins' mailbox was dug up and relocated outside the city limits to protect the mailmen. They say telephone service is as good as ever, which is something people living in healthy cities can't claim.

It's awfully quiet without friends nearby, but the Kleins say they had no neighbors 43 years ago, and it doesn't bother them that there are none today. "Anyway, it's not really quiet," says Lorene. "We live right next to the highway, and we can look out and see stuff all the time, mostly accidents."

Times Beach is divided by Interstate 44. Most of the city is on the north side of the highway, and so is most of the dioxin—actually a family of some 75 different compounds. Soil samples taken by the Environmental Protection Agency rate the concentration on the Kleins' property, located south of the highway, at less than one part per billion, a safe reading. The levels rise to a very unsafe 300 parts per billion only a few hundred yards from their front door. "The way I feel," says George, a retired clerk at the Monsanto Company, "is that if they let it go for 10 years and let you live here, what harm can it do you? If it hasn't got you yet, it won't bother you now."

This past April the board of aldermen of Times Beach voted to disincorporate the city, which means that technically Times Beach no longer exists. Yet for a city demolished by flood, destroyed by toxic waste and declared legally dead, it is remarkably alive. The air smells moist and fresh and the wild-flowers and dogwoods bloomed luxuriantly this spring. Deer run incautiously through yards clogged with disintegrating furniture dragged out after the flood and then discarded. Wild turkeys hotfoot it along the contaminated streets, birds clamor at dawn and butterflies are quiet all the time. Nature is flourishing amid the ruins, equitably taking possession of the smallest mobile homes as well as the few brick-and-glass showplaces.

Except for rusted red wagons and broken swing sets, empty houses are the most discomforting sight in the city. Almost every window in Times Beach is broken, but security guards at the checkpoint aren't certain whether most of the damage was done by malicious trespassers or by home owners angry at losing their property. A yellow Grand Prix, up on blocks, is an obvious victim of fury: A huge cement block, thrown through its windshield, lies on the front seat.

Although the city has been nearly empty for two years, some former residents remain angry to this day, convinced either that the dioxin fears were exaggerated or that they were unfairly compensated for the loss of their homes. Willow Johnson, 43, is among the small but bitter minority. She was one of the last to leave the city and did so reluctantly in February 1984, mourning the loss of her house and 28 trees. She now lives in Maplewood, a St. Louis suburb, in a house on "a little bitty lot with a driveway between the wall of my house and the wall of the house next door."

For most Times Beach residents, however, the discovery of dioxin proved more godsend than curse. Many homes were damaged severely by that 1982 flood, and the city was among the very few vulnerable communities in the country that had taken itself out of the federal flood insurance program. The dioxin scare was also a boon to the beleaguered EPA. Rita Lavelle, one of its top executives, would stop serving her country in 1983 and begin serving time in 1985 for lying to a congressional committee. Rescuing Middle America was a perfect public relations opportunity.

Anne Burford, the EPA administrator, visited the outskirts of Times Beach in early 1983 to announce a $33 million voluntary buy-out of the city. Says Russ Knox, a local broker who helped find homes for many displaced residents, "With the kind of money the people had in their hands and the loans available, it was the best thing that ever happened to them. Of course, I don't know how they felt inside."

It did mean the end of one of the most peculiar communities ever conceived. Times Beach was created in the mid-'20s by the St. Louis Times newspaper. By buying a six-month subscription and paying $67.50 extra, you got a 20-by-100-foot plot of land. At first, Times Beach was a riverside summer resort. Marilyn Leistner, the last mayor, says that at its rollicking peak the city had 13 bars and no churches. In the end, Times Beach was a stable, year-round community with two bars and four churches. People who were born there tended to stay there.

The Kleins say they will move when the government gives them a fair price for their place. They want $60,000, and so far they've been offered $37,000 plus an additional $10,500 in relocation costs. George says comparable houses in neighboring communities cost $60,000 to $80,000 and aren't much to see. "Some of those houses look like you could work on them the rest of your life and not fix them up." Another thing: They all had damp basements.

That might not seem like a problem to people who had 27 inches of water in their living room after the 1982 flood, but there's a principle involved here. When the EPA first announced its plan, the buy-out was strictly voluntary. Only when the state of Missouri kicked in a few million dollars was the buy-out declared mandatory. Lorene says that if she can't get the price she wants for the house, she'll be happy to stick with the bargain the federal government made and stay right where she is.

She's tough.

"For an old gal of 61, huh?" she agrees.

Back a few years ago Marilyn Leistner and Lorene Klein were good friends who worked together at the Times Beach Women's Organization. Now Marilyn has trouble knowing where her sympathies lie. She says she would like to see the Kleins "pleased and relocated where they're content," but she worries that other homeowners who accepted the government buy-out offer will feel cheated if the Kleins get more money by holding out. Marilyn's husband, Bill, the last marshal of Times Beach, is less appreciative of the Kleins' stand. "Why would 2,200 other people be wrong and they right?" he wonders.

If the Kleins are wrong, they are at peace with their mistake. The garden is planted, and George thinks the cantaloupe will be especially juicy this year, what with all the silt left by recent floods. There are black raspberries growing in the front of the house and red raspberries growing in the back and no reason to pay attention to the weeds growing high in the neighboring lots. Some people might worry, but the Kleins, as you might expect, aren't afraid of snakes.

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