Imaging a Shattering Earth: Contemporary Photography and the Environmental Debate
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Times Beach, Missouri

Times Beach is located in St. Louis County, Missouri. Once a town of 2200 residents, Times Beach is the site of one of America’s worst disasters resulting from pollution. From 1972 to 1976, due to a lack of city funds to pave their many dirt roads, Times Beach officials gave Russell Bliss six cents per gallon to spray waste oil as a means to combat a dust problem. The waste oil contained dangerous levels of dioxin, a component of Agent Orange, which was used during the Vietnam War to kill vegetation.

The dioxin ended up permeating the soil in dangerous amounts, and this was further exacerbated by the flood of the Meramac River in 1982. This incident warranted a permanent evacuation in 1983. At an initial cost of about 36 million dollars, the government bought out the land and relocated its citizens and businesses.

Times Beach has been devoid of human life for about two decades as a result of the contamination. As part of the nearly twenty-year cleanup, Syntex was granted a contract by the EPA in 1990 to install an incinerator and thermal treatment facility, which began operation in 1995. The new facility was utilized to destroy all dioxin-contaminated soil. Two years later, after 265,000 tons of soil were burned, the incinerator was shut down and dismantled, as the authorities believed the clean up to be finished. Although critics claim that unsafe levels of dioxin still exist, the EPA stands by its investigation and cleanup efforts. The former town has since been reborn as Route 66 State Park, which opened in 1999. Both Emmet Gowin and David T. Hanson photographed the area, a fact that demonstrates its significance as one of the worst man-induced disasters in American history. The former town is a chilling reminder of the harm we are capable of inflicting on our environment.

Selected Bibliography

“The History of Times Beach.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 5 September 1999, C1.

Allen, William. “New Dioxin Discovery Rekindles Controversy.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 7 August 1997, B2.

Times Beach, Missouri Pictures in the Gallery