Creosote cleanup gets state funding

One man's crusade to clean up creosote-soaked wood on Whidbey Island's beaches is no longer alone in his cause.

While Freeland resident Tony Frantz has spent the past year trying to make islanders aware of the dangers of getting too close to the toxic wood, the first real fruits of a creosote toxin cleanup in Bellingham show that state authorities are taking the problem seriously.

This spring, the city of Bellingham used a grant cobbled together by the state's Department of Ecology to inventory and begin removing creosoted logs and woods from Whatcom County beaches. Washed there by the tides from construction sites and aging marine structures around Puget Sound, the material -- which has long been used to weatherproof wood -- is now considered a health hazard, said Ecology environmental planner Barry Wenger.

As the weather gets warmer and the summer sun warms creosote-impregnated driftwood on local beaches, the problem is worsening. Wenger said the toxicity of the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) in the wood increases by 600 to 1,000 times in sunlight.

The only solution, he said, is to remove all the creosoted wood from Washington's beaches.

"We do want to essentially eliminate this problem," he said.

That will not be easy. Joni Cameron, coordinator for the Bellingham creosote cleanup program, said in May that her program is concentrating on just five miles of beaches and what she now sees as a relatively low concentration of toxic material.

After a recent beach tour on Whidbey Island conducted by Frantz, Cameron said it would not be possible for a small operation like hers -- which is run on the labor of the Washington Conservation Corps -- to handle the volume of creosoted material on Whidbey beaches.

"What I saw on Whidbey Island is 20 times worse than it is here," she said.

Frantz brought attention to the volume of creosoted wood on Whidbey Island beaches last July when he and several companions trespassed on Navy property at Lake Hancock to mark hundreds of creosote-laden timbers with red balloons. Since then, he has worked at patenting several devices that could be used to remove or contain creosote timbers that are still in use in sea walls and piers. He is currently working on an invention that would surround the timbers with plastic sleeves filled with biologic agents that would reduce the toxicity of creosote.

"You want to put these sleeves right around them," Frantz said recently.

Whatever the solution, Ecology's Wenger said the state has a big cleanup project on its hands. A ban on the use of creosoted wood in marine structures is preventing new timbers from going into the water, but there is an untold volume of creosoted wood leaching toxins that he said are damaging and killing marine life.

Unfortunately, the money to do a cleanup may not be there. Wenger said he is "not optimistic" about getting the millions of dollars it would take to do a statewide cleanup. He said his agency will continue to look for the money, but for now, the Bellingham project may be the only one with public funding.

For the time being, some of the cleanup may fall to private property owners with beachfront. Creosoted timbers that wash up on those properties are the owner's responsibility, though property owners have no obligation to remove the material.

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