Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

Interlude: Toxic Tour STL

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Earlier this year, I created an afternoon itinerary, self-dubbed the “toxic tour”, that would take me by some of St. Louis’ most notorious, nefarious and/or notable sites relating to the city’s long history of chemical manufacturing, toxic waste removal, and dodged bullets.  I picked three sites in order to create a semi-circular route, but it would be easy to add other significant stops (ie. the former Carter Carburetor plant/EPA Superfund Site, the smoldering Bridgeton landfill, the Eastside’s Mound’o’Trash, the old ordinance bunkers of the Mark Twain I-70 Industrial neighborhood, etc.) if you really wanted to make a family weekend of it. :0

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Toxic Tour Route.

Stop 1: Route 66 State Park

Next time you are on your way for fun in the sun at Six Flags or hauling the kids to summer camp at Jellystone Park, consider this unassuming roadside attraction, which you’ll need to pay attention not to miss.  Located on what was once the Mother Road, Route 66 State Park occupies land that was formerly the quaint riverside town of Times Beach.  The Park features miles of trails for hiking, biking, horse riding and bird watching, as well as, a fantastic visitor center/museum.

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Times Beach was founded in the mid-1920’s as a resort town with summer homes for St. Louisans looking for a cooler and quieter retreat from the big-city bustle.  For only $67.50 and a six-month subscription to the St. Louis Times newspaper, anyone could own a house here.  Though the Great Depression soon dematerialized the town’s grand ambitions, resort communities had been a successful business plan for earlier attempts in the area, like Castlewood.  Even so, a modest town did spring up, and life there was pleasant, if not provincial, except for the periodic flooding of the always temperamental Meramec River flowing nearby.

In the dry season, the town’s unpaved roads created the nuisance of dust particles hanging in the air.  To solve this, Times Beach commissioned Russell Bliss, a chemical waste hauler with a thriving side business of treating dirt roads, to spray oil on the city’s routes in order to keep the dust down.  For four years between 1972-1976 this worked well, until horses began to die.

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An investigation by the CDC into the dead horses and pets of Times Beach revealed a substantial amount of Dioxin in the soil.  Dioxin is an herbicide and one of the chemicals used in the production of Agent Orange, which had been produced at one of the facilities contracted with Russell Bliss.  Though he would deny the knowledge of Dioxin’s presence in the waste oil he was transporting, mixing, and spraying on the dirt roads of more than 20 sites across Missouri, Bliss’ folly was probably worst felt in Times Beach.  In 1985, the entire town had to be evacuated, and a prolonged EPA cleanup began, wherein 265,000 tons of soil had to be incinerated -all to the tune of millions of dollars.

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Today, very little remains of the original town, except for the odd gaps between the trees to suggest where homes had been, the visitor’s center (originally a roadside inn), and the historic warren truss bridge over the Meramec (now threatened by demolition).  If you get far enough off the main trails, there is an strange quiet to the park, something I can only equate to nature’s reverence for the devastation suffered there.  I did find a smattering of bricks and other building materials away from the paths, though it is hard to say if these were remnants of the town that was.

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Stop 2: Weldon Spring Site

As the U.S. war machine came back to life with the country’s entry into World War II, St. Louis once again played a prominent role in the development and manufacture of ordinance.  As a result, the Department of the Army acquired over 17,000 acres of land, causing the relocation of three towns (Howell, Hamburg and Toonerville), as a secure site for the production of TNT and DNT.  After the war, an early effort to decontaminate the government-licensed facilities resulted in the death of several workers.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was then employed to burn the soil and production facilities in place.  As well, more than 100,000 pounds of TNT and 80,000 pounds of DNT were incinerated on site.

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In the 1950’s, the Weldon Spring Site was reconsidered as a uranium feed materials plant, and in 1957, new operations contracted by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works began assaying yellow cake uranium.  Beginning in the 1960’s, former quarries at Weldon Spring were used to deposit waste materials from Mallinckrodt’s uranium processing plant downtown (third stop on the “tour” and the site where uranium for one of the atom bombs dropped on Japan was refined) and from the Army’s arsenal in Granite City (several thousand barrels of radioactive waste came to Weldon Spring from this facility).  As the country entered into war in southeast Asia in the 1960’s, plans were made to produce Agent Orange at Weldon Spring, but this never came to pass.

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As the Weldon Spring Site was deactivated, a long and pronounced period passed of not knowing exactly what to do with the site or the waste material dumped there.  Throughout the 1970’s and 80’s, the Government sponsored innumerable studies resulting in sometimes incompatible conclusions.  Portions of the site were decontaminated or otherwise further isolated from contact, but the quarries remained the biggest problem, especially as they collected rain water and their impact on natural ecology and human settlements nearby (including a high school just yards away!) due to runoff was inconclusive.  The decision to make the site safe again was made in the early 1990’s, and efforts toward this aim continued over the decade following.  In October of 2001, the “last rock” was placed on the cap of a cell designed to encapsulate and stabilize the site’s radioactive material.  This cell measures 1400′ by 1400′ and stands over 75′ tall.  The next year, the Weldon Spring Site Interpretive Center opened; a veritable museum dedicated to the history (good and bad) of the site and surrounding area.

If you have not been to Weldon Spring to see this, I highly recommend that you go.  It is simply incredible to behold.

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Stop 3: Mallinckrodt Chemical Works

NOTE: This last site is private property, so expect to only view it from a distance.  

St. Louis is one of those rare places with so much great history that it is sometimes hard to believe.  Take, for instance, Mallinckrodt Chemical Works, a once family-owned business that went from apple orchard to uranium refinery (for the Manhattan Project!) in just three generations.  The company has been listed on Fortune’s 500 list since 1981, and it manufactures loads of proprietary, semi-secret products, so it is no surprise that security is robust there.  If you drop by to visit and want to snap a pic, expect to do so from across the street (or down the street, like I did).

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Still, I list Mallinckrodt as the final stop on this tour because it is probably the most profitable business still in existence to have generated toxic waste in St. Louis, and although some of the sites that it operated, like Weldon Spring, have been subject to scrutiny in hindsight, Mallinckrodt always played by the book and followed the rules.  Given the long history of the company and its significance to the economy of the city’s Near North Riverfront, where is there a better place to stop and reflect upon the points you’ve just visited?

 Just, maybe, don’t eat any apples that you might happen to find there….             



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  1. […] 5. site of former St. Louis suburb, Times Beach […]

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