TIMES BEACH, Mo. -- The head of the Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that $33 million will be spent in an unprecedented federal buy-out of homes and business in dioxin-contaminated Times Beach.
EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch Burford said the town also would be placed on the national priority list for Superfund monies.
'The EPA will be allocating to FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) $33 million for buy-out, at the option of the citizens of all residences and businesses in Times Beach,' Mrs. Burford said.
Mrs. Burford made the announcement at a news conference in nearby Eureka, but said she knew Times Beach residents were either present in the motel meeting room or outside where her remarks were carried on a public address system.
'Let me talk to you directly because you are the people I have been very, very concerned about,' she said. 'I'm as upset as all of you have been over the uncertainty you have had to live with.
'I know how very distressing the situation has been for you. The president has had deep concern over the uncertainty.'
After the announcement, Mrs. Burford answered questions and one of the first criticized the EPA for moving slowly on the dioxin danger at Times Beach.
'The underlying assumption is not accurate,' said Mrs. Burford. 'The test results came to me last night. I acted as quickly as possible under the law.
'It's been a difficult process. The cleaning up of America will not be easy.'
The officials confirmed that the latest round of tests taken in January show the dioxin contamination to be much worse than earlier believed.
Preliminary test results showed contamination of as much as 300 parts dioxin per billion parts soil in much of the tiny St. Louis suburb. One part dioxin per billionparts soil is considered a significant health risk.
Money from the federal Superfund -- a pool of money from a tax on chemical companies for cleaning up hazardous waste sites -- will cover 90 percent of the cost with the other 10 percent to be paid by the state.
The government cannot force the property owners to sell their homes and businesses, but most of the town's 2,000 residents have indicated they want to sell. All but about 300 of the residents are living in temporary housing outside Times Beach because of record flooding in December and the dioxin problem.
'This is the answer to all our prayers,' said resident Evelyn Zufall. 'It's what everybody wanted, except for very few people who don't realize the dangers we're in.'
Under the buy-out proposal, appraisers would assess the value of the property before the flooding and before the extent of dioxin contamination became known. The government will then make an offer to the owner.
'I feel like doing handstands in the middle of I-44 or turning cartwheels in the parking lot,' said Clarence Stone, owner of the nearly abandoned Easy Living and Sherwood Glen mobile home park.
The elation of residents was tempered by the realization it meant the demise of the town.
'Ours is a very small town where kids could play in the streets and mothers never had to worry,' Mrs. Zuvall said. 'It's very sad ... almost like someone died and you're visiting the grave. This was a nice place once, and now we have to bury it.'
Tests last fall showed dioxin levels of up to 100 parts per billion and the federal Centers for Disease Control advised people to stay out of town. The new round of tests was ordered after record flooding by the Meramec River in early December. The flooding aggravated the contaimination problem.
The city's unpaved streets were sprayed with waste oil contaminated by dioxin in the early 1970s as a dust-control measure. The waste hauler, Russell Bliss, has said he did not know the oil was contaminated.
Dioxin is a toxic substance generated as an unwanted byproduct in the manufacture of some pesticides, cleansers and wood preservatives. It is known to cause chloracne, a serious skin disorder.
Dioxin has been shown in laboratory tests on animals to cause cancer, birth defects and diseases of the nerves, liver, kidneys and bladder.