Ten Second News by Son Volt

Today I am discussing a Son Volt song called Ten Second News off of their first album Trace from 1995, which is my favorite traveling album. It’s the fifth song on this album. Shawna or I will always put it on no matter where we are going if the trip is very long at all.

Here’s the story of how I found Son Volt.

Who remembers Columbia House? Columbia House was, maybe it’s still around, a mail-order music club. They had the deals like get twelve cassettes for one penny. Then every month they would feature one cassette and if you didn’t send back a reply saying you didn’t want it you would get that cassette sent to you in the mail. Well Son Volt was one of those cassettes. I didn’t reply and I got this cassette of a band I had never heard of. I wasn’t a huge fan of the band at the time but they did have songs about Ste. Genevieve, a town on the Mississippi River that I had heard of. They also had a song called Drown on that album that I really did enjoy but I kind of forgot about the album, for the most part, until years later and Shawna and I got into Uncle Tupelo. I found out that Jay Farrar (of Son Volt) was in Uncle Tupelo. I went back and listened to it and fell in love with all the songs and one of those songs was Ten Second News.

Ten Second News is about a ghost town close to Eureka, Missouri, just outside of St. Louis, Missouri.

As a teenager in the mid to late 80s we would sometimes go to Six Flags Over Mid-America, as it was called back then. I think it’s Six Flags - St. Louis now. I loved the Screaming Eagle. It was an old wooden roller coaster that jerked you around a lot but it was so much fun. Six Flags is on interstate 44 in Eureka, Missouri in St. Louis County, just south and west of St. Louis. I44 basically follows the historic Route 66 through Missouri southwest from St. Louis to Joplin. It is evenly numbered interstate with signifies that it runs east-west but it could just as easily be an odd numbered interstate because it runs from the northeast to the southwest. It goes from St. Louis, Missouri to Wichita Falls, Texas.

I can remember traveling there and on the side of the road you would see this ghost town called Times Beach about 15 minutes away from Six Flags. The whole town was still there - houses, shops, gas stations and it was like everyone just ran off. The story I was told back then, as I remember it, was that radon, a radioactive gas, was emanating from the ground and it caused the people to have to leave the area. I don’t think I had any idea what Radon was at the time. I really don’t have any idea now. Come to find out later when I went to research it, that wasn’t what happened at all and the real story is way more interesting. As most real stories are…

Times Beach was founded in 1925 on the flood plain of the Meramec River, probably not the best decision to put a city on a flood plain. The whole town was this crazy promotion by a St. Louis newspaper called the St. Louis-Times, get it Times Beach… You could buy a twenty foot by one hundred foot plot of land for $67.50 and with that you got a six month newspaper subscription. This sounds like getting MAX for six months with your cable subscription. Twenty foot wide doesn’t seem very wide but you did get the newspaper with it so it was probably worth it.

The town was created primarily as a summer resort and even though $67.50 doesn’t sound like much, it would be $1002.64 in todays money, that would be a pretty substantial amount at the time and remember you still had to build the house, and maybe get two plots based on the size. The town quickly became a place for summer houses and a resort of sorts. It was located right on Historic Route 66, Main Street of America so there would’ve been a decent amount of traffic.

Unfortunately the Great Depression of the 30s combined with gasoline rationing during World War II caused Times Beach to be mostly low-income housing. In 1970 when this story takes place the town had a population of 1,240 of mostly lower-middle income families. The St. Louis-Times went out of business in 1951 and the town was not able to fund their infrastructure. Their roads were never paved which lead to a substantial amount of dust.

This leads us to the lyrics of Ten Second News.

The first verse goes like this…

When you find what matters is what you feel
It arrives and it disappears
Driving down sunny 44 highway
There’s a beach there known for cancer
Waiting to happen

And then the third verse goes like this…

And it’s hard enough soaking up billboard signs
You scorch and drown alive, never knowing why
The levee gates are open wide. There’s a cough in the water and it’s running into town

So how did Times Beach become known for cancer? It’s a long story that I’ll try to get through as succinctly as possible.

In the late 1960s, Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Company (NEPACCO), started a facility in Verona, a town in southwestern Missouri. The company name at the time was Hoffman-Taff, they produced Agent Orange that was used during Vietnam. One of the byproducts of Agent Orange production was a chemical called Dioxin.

In the early 1970s, after the need for Agent Orange was gone, NEPACCO, started making hexachlorophene, an antibacterial used in soap, toothpaste, and other disinfectants. The byproduct of producing hexachlorophene is also Dioxin.

NEPACCO had a problem because the most effective way to destroy Dioxin is to incinerate it which is very expensive. Capitalism prevailed and NEPACCO contracted Independent Petrochemical Corporation, hereby known as IPC, to dispose of the waste dioxin. IPC charged NEPACCO $3,000 per load. IPC subcontracted Russell Bliss to haul it away for $125 per load. Bliss didn’t get paid much compared to what IPC got paid. Bliss also stated that no one told him what was in the drums other than waste oil. He hauled 18,500 gallons to his facility and mixed it with used motor oil that he already had.

Bliss would spray this waste oil on his horse arena and farm to keep dust down. People that visited him noticed how effective it was and soon he was spraying others arenas and farms as well.

In May of 1971, Bliss was paid $150 to spray an indoor arena in Moscow Mills, Missouri. A few days later, birds began to die and horses began to get sores and lose their hair. Bliss was blamed but denied it. He said that all he sprayed was used motor oil and it wouldn’t have had those effects.

A month later Bliss was hired to spray an arena near Jefferson City, Missouri, the capital of Missouri, if you are interested. This time twelve horses died and some children were diagnosed with a skin condition associated with dioxin poisoning.

Bliss was contracted to do another arena and the same kinds of problems arose.

All of this made the Center for Disease Control (CDC) wonder what was happening, In August of that year, they went to the farms and tested human and animal blood samples. Dioxin really wasn’t understood at the time and the CDC didn’t come to conclusive evidence as to what was causing the problems.

Then in 1972, because of all the dirt roads in Times Beach, they needed a way to suppress the dust. Bliss was hired for $2,400. He sprayed ~160,000 gallons of waste oil in Times Beach from 1972 to 1976.

The EPA noticed the issues around Missouri and stepped into the investigation in 1979 and did testing at the old NEPACCO plant. By 1979 they understood what they were looking for. They found very high concentrations of dioxin. In 1982, the EPA, went back to the farms that Bliss had sprayed and found that they still had much more dioxin than was healthy for humans. A leaked EPA document listed 14 contaminated areas and 41 possible contaminated areas. Times Beach was the largest community on this list.

Residents of Times Beach found out about the document and the public pressured the EPA to investigate the town. During the investigation, the town’s entire road network was confirmed to have extremely high concentrations of dioxin.

On December 3rd, 1982, just after the EPA finished its investigation, a flood of Times Beach caused the entire town to be evacuated. On December 23rd, 1982 the CDC recommended that the town could not be inhabited and everyone was told they could not return.

In January of 1983, President Ronald Reagan created the Times Beach Dioxin Task force. They recommended that the government buy the entire town. The US government paid $33 million and Missouri paid $3.7 million.

Times Beach contained fifty percent of the dioxin in Missouri, so an incinerator was built there to incinerate all of the dioxin material from across the state. 265,000 tons of contaminated material was incinerated. The eventual cost of this program was almost $200 million.

For all the destruction of property and money that it cost to clean up there weren’t a lot of lawsuits brought based on liability. In the end there were lots of new laws created to combat these issues from ever happening again.

Afterward, like almost everything, there were scientists and doctors that believed dioxin poisoning wasn’t as bad for humans as originally thought but either way the town was bulldozed over and a state park was created in its place. It’s called the Route 66 State Park and has one building from the original Times Beach still there. It’s now the Parks visitor center.

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