Creosote-soaked logs have residents seeing red
June 25, 2008 · Updated 1:55 PM
"Tony France rests on driftwood at the Navy's Lake Hancock as red balloons bob in the breeze. Each balloon marks a creosote-covered log.John Knowlton, staff photoWhat is creosote? According to John Stein, a division director for the National Marine Fisheries Service, creosote is the heavy fraction of crude oil. Lighter fractions of oil include gasoline as the lightest, then diesel. Heavy fractions include creosote and coal tar. Components of creosote are known to cause liver cancer in English sole in Puget Sound. Creosote has been used to treat wood because it has a slow and constant leach rate that lasts up to 40 years.Drivers traveling along Highway 525 north of Greenbank are used to seeing the ocean on either side of the road - Admiralty Inlet to the west and Saratoga Passage to the east.But if they looked closely to the west Monday morning, where Lake Hancock lies, they saw something completely different - a sea of red balloons.About 350 helium balloons were attached to creosote-soaked logs and pressure-treated lumber in a portion of the saltwater marsh lake.This is the elephant graveyard of treated ferry construction debris, said Tony France, an island contractor who, along with 10 other people, sneaked into the Lake Hancock Naval Reservation at the crack of dawn Monday.The early-morning assault and show of red balloons was done to increase awareness of the amount of creosote logs that line the area's beaches and saltwater marshes. France says he's willing to haul the logs out if a suitable way can be found to dispose of them.France, 49, met with his friends at his house at 5:30 a.m. The group hauled the balloons, a helium tank, string, nails and hammers into the Lake Hancock area. Some people acted as spotters, while others tied string to the balloons. Still others nailed the string to the timbers. By noon, their work was complete, so France, along with Gary Reeves of Langley and Rupert Schmitt of Anacortes, hauled their materials from the site. France said the group will eventually return to remove the balloons.Schmitt, an environmental consultant, estimated that the work crew was able to tag between 5 and 10 percent of the creosote-soaked logs in the lake area. He estimated the total number of timbers covered with creosote in the lake to be between 4,000 and 5,000.The lake is surrounded by a saltwater marsh that is considered ecologically sensitive because it occupies a lifezone between marine and land habitats.A marker overlooking the site from Highway 525 says the importance of the marshland, transition zone and forest to the welfare of thousands of nesting and migrating seabirds cannot be overestimated. It is a prime saltwater nursery for barnacles, jellyfish and an uncounted myriad of other small creatures.The reservation area formerly was used as a bombing range. The United States Navy maintains that there still may be live bombs somewhere within the range. France and crew sneaked into the reservation without getting required approval from the Navy.John Phillips, ecologist for Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, said Tuesday he was unaware that anyone had been in the reservation. But he said security clearance is required because the area hasn't been certified to be clean of ordnance materials.Creosote-soaked wood products have been used in Puget Sound for decades as a way to preserve the life of wood used in marine construction. Ferry terminals, docks, docking structures and a host of other marine structures are built with the material.Russ East, director of terminal engineering for the Washington State Ferry System, says the state decided more than a year ago to quit using creosote-soaked wood in waterways for environmental reasons. He material's biocumulative effect is toxic.The ferry system does use creosote-soaked wood on dock systems and offshore docking aids such as towers, East said. He said state policy requires his agency to replace creosote material with plastic, steel or concrete pilings. This spring, WSF finished the first half of a four-year construction project to replace Clinton ferry dock. This fall, WSF will begin rebuilding the second half of the wood dock. All the creosote-soaked timbers in the old dock are being replaced with other materials, East said.France is initially targeting Lake Hancock and the area from the ferry terminal at Keystone to Lagoon Point in his cleanup efforts. Later, he'd like to remove creosote timbers from Holmes Harbor and other beaches of Puget Sound. He said he has enlisted support from Sen. Patty Murray and a other local officials for his effort. Other officials, like Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton, said while they support France's goals, he must follow proper procedures for removing creosote-soaked wood from coastal areas.From an environmental point of view, getting the creosote logs off the beach sounds like an admirable thing to do, Shelton said. Tony has talked with lots of people but we don't have a program laid out ... I would hope that we get all the necessary steps done and in place.France said he is willing to get whatever regulatory approval is necessary. It's a calling upon me to do this, he said. This is what I was born to do.France, who owns a construction company that builds staircases to the beach and does land embankment work, said he has lined up truck drivers, divers and others to help remove the material from Hancock Lake and elsewhere. I'm just trying to get the state or the county to put it someplace. Somebody could use this stuff, but I don't want to see it go back in the water ever again.And there's the rub. Once creosote logs are removed, where do they go? Jerry Mingo, the recycling and hazardous waste coordinator for Island County, said this week that creosote-soaked wood that has been previously brought to the recycling center has been treated as municipal waste. The county has transported the wood to a solid waste facility near Arlington, Ore.The material is not typically considered to be hazardous. If it was, it would be placed in a landfill in another state or incinerated at a toxic waste dump in Arkansas, he said.Also complicating France's plan is the $85 per ton tipping fee he would need to pay to dispose of the creosote wood. Mingo said elected officials could waive the fee, but private garbage haulers then would still need to be paid from a limited county fund.Island County might be able to take a page out of the book of nearby Whatcom County on this issue. That county used federal coastal zone management funds to pay for transport of creosote logs to Arlington, said Alice Schisel, shoreline planner for the state ecology department. "