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Creosote gets attention

State Department of Ecology environmental planner Barry Wenger, left, explains the hazards of creosote when it
State Department of Ecology environmental planner Barry Wenger, left, explains the hazards of creosote when it's exposed to sunlight to U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, center, as the 2nd District congressman gets a tour of the creosote-affected beach at Double Bluff from activist Tony Frantz, right.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

It was a good week for Whidbey Islanders trying to remove creosote-soaked wood and logs from the island's beaches.

Anti-creosote activist Tony Frantz -- who has been campaigning for more than a year to clean up the creosote he believes to be a toxic threat to Western Washington residents -- won public audiences with both the Navy and with Rep. Rick Larsen on what he believes to be two of the most polluted beaches in the state.

On Wednesday, Frantz toured the Lake Hancock estuary in Greenbank with Navy officials to identify creosoted wood on land and in water that has been used for decades as a Navy bombing range. Thursday brought Larsen to Double Bluff beach, along with local environmentalists and members of a cleanup team currently working to remove creosoted wood from miles of Whatcom County beaches.

Creosote is a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, a chemical compound that, when injected into wood, preserves pilings and planks for decades, even when they are submerged in salt water. The substance is believed to be harmful to marine life and to be a carcinogen in humans. Fresh creosote in its semi-liquid form can also burn skin.

Frantz and a number of other creosote activists put the majority of their efforts into the Double Bluff tour, placing 300 helium-filled red balloons on the beach to mark creosoted wood. Arriving with a representative from state Senator Mary Margaret Haugen's office, Larsen said he found the display "alarming."

He was also struck by the smell of the creosote, something he said he unfortunately identifies with a visit to almost any Western Washington beach. Removing creosote from those beaches, he said, is a project worthy of federal funding.

"Having come out here and seen it is important to getting it started," he said of the work to get those funds.

Frantz, whose crusade against creosote initially met with skepticism, said he believes his concerns are being heard. With one county already using federal and state money to remove creosote from its beaches and now that he has the attention of officials at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, he said it is only a matter of time before the cleanup begins on Whidbey Island.

When asked by Larsen what it would take to begin the cleanup on Double Bluff beach, Frantz said he would be willing to volunteer his time with a small tractor to load the toxic material into disposal containers. With a few volunteers, he said, the work could go quickly.

"It's not really hard to do if you got a little piece of equipment," he said.

Barry Wenger, a state environmental planner who was at the Thursday event, said cleanup is not the only step the state needs to take to rid its beaches of creosote. He said creosote wood structures that are still in use, such as state ferry docks and bulkheads, need their component parts replaced with non-toxic materials such as metal, concrete and plastic.

In addition to this, Frantz said he wants to inspect the creosoted wood on Whidbey beaches to find metal identification tags some manufacturers place on the wood. Using those tags, he said, the state can track down the parties responsible for dropping the toxic materials in the water in the first place.

Larsen said he plans to look for funding for a creosote cleanup project when he returns to Washington, D.C.

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