News Media Ignored Dangers of Dioxin

By Downs, Peter | St. Louis Journalism Review, April 1998 | Go to article overview

News Media Ignored Dangers of Dioxin


Downs, Peter, St. Louis Journalism Review


Editor's note: This is the first article in a three-part series about how the media failed to report on the dangers of dioxin.

For most of the 1990s, both government officials and the mainstream media reassured the public that the hazards of dioxin were under control. But now it has come out that statements made by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were either "patently wrong," as Congressman James Talent (R-Mo.) told the St. Louis Journalism Review, or blatant lies.

Despite the failure of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the local television news departments to expose the EPA's errors, government agencies have been forced to acknowledge that the problem is bigger than they had previously admitted.

"The fix was in," says Talent. "Incinerating dioxin was clearly wrong for Times Beach, but the EPA refused to consider even the alternatives it used elsewhere. The irony is that after 15 years, we are back where we started."

In fact, last autumn the EPA confirmed the existence of dioxin at two more sites in metropolitan St. Louis - on LeMar Drive in Ellisville and in McDonnell Park in Berkeley.

The EPA decided the dioxin in McDonnell Park was mostly "too deep" to be a problem. On LeMar Drive, it scraped the contaminated soil into a pile, covered it with a tarp and put a fence around the site.

Ever since then, LeMar Drive residents have asked, "When are they going to move the dirt?" And finally print and electronic news reporters have joined the clamor. "When will they move the dirt?" they shout.

But the EPA's problem is that it does not know what to do with dioxin-contaminated soil. The disposal method it assured the public was safe - incineration - it now knows is not. The local media shouldn't act so surprised; that information has been available to them for some time if they had only looked.

Post gets it wrong

In the early 1990s, the EPA invested a lot of time and effort in convincing the public that incineration would erase the dioxin problem - the ovens at Times Beach would destroy the compound once and for all. A few critics, such as Greenpeace and the Times Beach Action Group, were not convinced, but state officials and the news media hastened to support the EPA. On three occasions, the Post editorialized in favor of the agency's plan to burn dioxin wastes.

"There were a lot of studies that questioned the safety of incineration," says Talent. "And there were a lot of alternative technologies available that the EPA used elsewhere that didn't involve moving dioxin waste around or putting dioxin in the air."

Talent recalls a meeting with "a roomful" of hazardous-waste-disposal experts and an EPA official, in which the EPA official said alternatives to incineration could not be used at Times Beach because a lot of the dioxin was in sofas and engine blocks, "and you can't put those in the disposal machines." The comment was not only irrelevant, "it was patently wrong, because you wouldn't put sofas and engine blocks in the incinerator either."

The EPA was wrong about incineration too. Preliminary results of the follow-up study of dioxin incineration in Jacksonville, Ark. found diabetes increased in the population exposed to the incinerator's exhaust, says Denise Jordan-Izaguirre, regional representative of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). The increase was marked enough it "showed up at first glance," she says. The Jacksonville incinerator was a model for the Times Beach facility. It began operating in 1993, two years ahead of the Missouri ovens. A similar follow-up study at Times Beach isn't finished.

The study results aren't really surprising. Jordan-Izaguirre says the ATSDR looked for an elevated incidence of diabetes because other research had suggested that exposure to very low levels of dioxin could bring on the disease.

Environmentalists protested against incinerator plans from the beginning. …

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