Sometimes the most difficult situations have seemingly simple solutions.
And Freeland inventor Tony Frantz may have created his own simple solution to a problem Puget Sound has faced for decades: removing creosote wood pilings left over from old docks and shipping canals.
Frantz has invented a machine that is able to remove the toxic pilings from the water in a way that prevents chemicals in the creosote from dispersing into the surrounding water. The Frantz Pile Extractor, or what Frantz says will be called “The Murray” in the field, is the first commercial device of its kind. The Murray was tested for the first time in Port Angeles by the state’s Department of Natural Resources in July, successfully removing about a dozen toxic logs.
“It’s oftentimes more harmful to the environment to remove creosote piles than to leave them alone,” Dan Collins, president of American Piledriving Equipment said. “This device changes that. It’s the first that doesn’t cause harm and isn’t expensive.”
The Seattle-based company built the model used in Port Angeles and is under contract with Frantz to use the machine for six months; Frantz still owns the device and holds the patent for his invention.
Frantz has been raising awareness of creosote’s toxicity for more than a decade, and environmentalists, construction business owners and legislators alike all think his invention could change the way abandoned docks are dealt with.
Derelict docks and wooden structures built in the past century are sometimes left untouched since the creosote piles break apart and release a plume of chemicals when touched. Some of the toxins are cancer-causing, and can be extremely hazardous to humans, birds and marine life alike. Creosote, the oil tar contaminant, was used as a wood preservative before it became a known chemical contaminant. Often on old docks, canals and wooden poles, the preservative is toxic to the touch and when inhaled can make people violently sick. Frantz says Creosote has 300 chemicals in it, and is one of the more hazardous products on the market.
“They call it the witches brew,” Frantz said. “It will burn you if you touch it, and it kills everything in the first foot of water below the surface.”
The Murray is able to prevent creosote spread with a cylinder that completely surrounds the piling. Within the cylinder, water and air is sprayed onto the log from pipes to clean the contaminant. The creosote is then drawn from the pump to vacuum excavation trucks used to clean portable bathrooms before the piling is removed from the water. The machine is lifted on top of the piling with a crane.
Old techniques of pile removal involve a net that is designed to catch the chemicals leaked from the creosote. However, Frantz said it only catches the chemicals on the surface, leaving everything else in the water.
“Over the years, we have found that there aren’t many feasible techniques or equipment that can remove short piling stubs in an ecologically sensitive way that also minimizes disturbance to the environment,” Jordanna Black, restoration specialist at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources said.
Frantz knows the hazards of creosote first hand. In the ‘90s, he built structures from creosote treated wood before becoming “violently ill” in 2000 from exposure to the preservative. The chemicals sent him to the emergency room, and made him sick for weeks with convulsions and an infected stomach. The episodes of illness return to him frequently; he said he has been to the hospital about 40 times since his exposure.
Creosote is also extremely hazardous to wildlife. Frantz said when a heron lays an egg on a creosote log, there is a 95 percent mortality rate with the other 5 percent mutated births that die within a few months. Howard Garrett, cofounder of Orca Network, said the wood preservative is particularly harmful to long-lived marine mammals such as whales.
“It infiltrates the cell walls of every organism from a single cell to plankton,” Garrett said. “Every organism that eats the other accumulates the toxins, so long- living animals are heavily injured.”
Although it’s the early days for The Murray, the device is interesting to a lot of organizations across the state since it is the first commercial device of its kind. The Washington State Department of Natural Resources used the machine in its first clean up project in Port Orchard in July. Various legislators such as Congressman Rick Larsen, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray — the device was named after her — and former longtime state senator Mary Margaret Haugen have all penned endorsements for Frantz’s machine for future grants. The Washington State Department of Natural Resources and Washington State Department of Ecology have also penned their support.
“It’s a major invention I think,” Frantz said. “It can really help the Puget Sound. One third of the pollution in the Sound is from creosote, and I hope it’s used around the world to help the environment. It’s not about the money.”