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EPA set to conduct new soil tests at Times Beach site

Monday, June 4, 2012 | 3:02 p.m. CDT; updated 5:18 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 4, 2012

ST. LOUIS — Nearly 30 years after Times Beach was evacuated in one of the nation's most notorious environmental disasters, scientists with the Environmental Protection Agency are returning to the site for a new round of soil sampling.

EPA officials expect the examination to confirm that the Times Beach site, now Route 66 State Park, is free of concerning levels of dioxin, spokesman Chris Whitley said Monday. The study is being conducted at the request of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which operates the state park. Messages left with DNR officials were not returned.

The study using more sophisticated technology than was previously available is expected to give the EPA a better understanding of dioxin, which could help in future dioxin contamination cases, EPA officials say. As for the site itself, years of follow-up studies have shown that the soil in the park is safe, and EPA officials believe the new study will concur.

"We fully expect this is going to confirm for us that the current conditions are still protective," Whitley said.

Times Beach, along the Meramec River in southwest St. Louis County, was for years a popular summer resort area. By the 1970s, though, it was a mostly working-class town of about 2,200 residents.

Because many of the streets were still dirt, the town hired a contractor to spray oil on the streets to keep the dust down. It turned out the oil was contaminated with dioxin, a highly toxic chemical that can cause cancer and other serious diseases.

By the mid-1980s, Times Beach had joined Love Canal, N.Y., as two of the nation's worst disasters involving dioxin. Times Beach was evacuated, and then-Gov. John Ashcroft ordered it disincorporated in 1985. EPA classified it as a Superfund site, and by 1992 the town was completely demolished.

EPA then began extensive cleanup that included the removal of several tons of soil that were replaced with clean backfill. After several years of cleanup, the land was turned over to the state and the park opened in 1999. Soil testing over the years has confirmed that residual dioxin concentrations at the old Times Beach site are within EPA guidelines.

But the new testing, expected to take about a month, will use more sensitive equipment and more advanced testing methods than were previously available, allowing for detection of even trace amounts dioxin, EPA officials said.

The testing is part of a study that seeks to help develop better procedures for assessing dioxin risks, broadening EPA's understanding of dioxin. The EPA said the study will help guide federal and state agencies in addressing future dioxin concerns around the country.

"This is a good lab setting," Whitley said. "This is primarily a pilot study for future use."

The sampling work is expected to take about a month, followed by 90 days of analysis and interpretation, Whitley said. Results will then be made public.


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