Something Stinks

The Lingering Legacy of the Wood-Preserving Industry

Sunshine was streaming through the picture windows into Kimm Marshall’s living room and the sky was a crisp blue, a rare treat for valley-bound Oregonians in December. Side-stepping his nieces and nephews, Marshall gathered up a garbage bag of crumpled wrapping paper and stepped outside to put it with the trash. That’s when the stench hit him. Thick, oily fumes engulfed his property like an invisible fog. "Not on Christmas Day," he thought. "They couldn’t possibly be doing this on Christmas Day."

Kimm Marshall of Eugene, Oregon lives 300 yards from a smelly wood preserving plant.©TODD COOPER/EUGENE WEEKLY

Marshall’s West Eugene home is 300 yards from J.H. Baxter & Co., a wood preserving plant that treats utility poles, railroad ties, marine pilings and other industrial-use wood with pesticides that protect it from rot and decay. The chemicals they use do not only smell bad. Along with a host of associated health effects ranging from skin irritation to birth defects, creosote, pentachlorophenol (penta) and arsenicals—the three most commonly used wood preservatives—have been classified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as known or probable human carcinogens.

The recent appearance of a rare, aggressive form of leukemia in the neighborhoods surrounding J.H. Baxter has heightened community concerns. Now residents are not only frustrated by the unpleasant odor, they’re fearful breathing it poses a serious threat to their health. Their situation is by no means an isolated instance; it’s a story that has been played out in dozens of poor, rural communities across the country—and the details are often eerily similar.

In the late 90s, three communities in Mississippi, Louisiana and Pennsylvania discovered they had something more in common besides the same serious health problems—a Kerr-McGee wood treatment facility. After an intensive comparative study, medical toxicologist Dr. James Dahlgren found elevated cancer rates, skin rashes, respiratory diseases and neurological conditions in residents near the Columbus, Mississippi plant where penta and creosote had been used extensively since the 1920s.

Between 1999 and 2001, Kerr-McGee (the industrial giant whose corporate negligence was the subject of the 1977 film Silkwood) was named in 22 lawsuits alleging that air emissions, waste disposal practices and accidental spills were to blame for the communities" health problems. The company settled the majority of the cases out of court and decided to get out of the wood-preserving business entirely.

In another study, Dr. Pat Williams, director of the Occupational Toxicology Program of the Department of Medicine at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, found clusters of leukemia and other cancers after an in-depth study of people living near an abandoned wood-preserving site in northern Louisiana. He also found a statistically significant increase in birth defects in babies born to people who grew up in the neighborhoods near the contaminated site.

At J.H. Baxter, above-risk concentrations of penta, creosote constituents, and arsenic have been detected in the soil and groundwater both on plant property and beyond. The residents fear that the inhalation of creosote fumes, which have an odor like scorched tar, is yet another route of exposure in an already toxic environment. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) does not believe the community is being exposed to chemicals at unacceptable risk levels in the groundwater or soil (air testing is currently underway). But the DEQ admits that the system that determines how much of a pollutant can be emitted into the environment before constituting a health risk fails to take into account the cumulative effect of multiple, simultaneous exposures—a reality for most people living in today’s world and certainly for residents living near J.H. Baxter.

According to the most recent industry report, there were 445 wood-preserving plants operating in the U.S. in 1997, most of them clustered along the southeastern coastline. Almost 60 wood-preserving sites have been on the National Priorities List, which lists facilities eligible for cleanup under the Superfund program, and wood-preserving chemicals contaminate hundreds more that are either too contaminated or too costly for effective remediation. Many of these properties incurred the bulk of their contamination prior to the 1970s when there were no regulations or restrictions on waste disposal. (J.H. Baxter opened in 1943.)

The EPA first acknowledged the dangers of wood preservatives in 1978 and announced plans to phase-out the pesticides" registration, but anti-pesticide lobbyist groups say the agency has done nothing but back-pedal ever since. In a 1984 report, the EPA’s Scientific Panel admonished the industry’s "denial of scientific data concerning the mutagenicity and carcinogencitiy of the wood preservatives." But that same year, the EPA decided that alternatives to treated wood—steel and recycled plastic products—were not economically viable.

In 2002, a 15-group coalition headed by the national nonprofit Beyond Pesticides sued the EPA for continuing to allow the use of these wood preservatives, despite knowledge of their harmful effects, and dragging out the review process. In 2003, following a number of lawsuits and a scare over arsenic-treated playground equipment, the industry announced a voluntary phase-out of Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA) for most residential uses. But opponents to toxic wood preservatives insist this isn’t enough.

Among the coalition’s most startling statistics is the EPA’s own calculation that a child continuously exposed to the soil around a utility pole treated with penta has a 220 times greater chance of getting cancer than levels deemed acceptable by the EPA. Another study concluded that workers who apply grease to utility poles (a penta process recently outlawed) have a 3.4 in one (or 340 percent) chance of getting cancer. Beyond Pesticides is also concerned with the haphazard disposal of pesticide-treated wood. In a 1999 study, they found that more than 68 percent of utilities are in the habit of giving away discarded utility poles to anyone who wants them.

Although penta is banned in 26 countries around the world and can only be used in the U.S. as a wood preservative, the EPA recently released a preliminary risk assessment for penta that supports the chemical’s registration eligibility. To the dismay of Beyond Pesticides, penta’s revised risk assessment neglects to take into account two highly hazardous constitutents: dioxins and hexachlorobenzene (HCB). Both are recognized endocrine disruptors and classified as carcinogens by the National Institutes of Health. The coalition also criticizes the EPA for relying solely on data provided by a chemical industry group that has a vested economic interest in keeping penta in use. The activists also point out a dramatic reversal since the agency’s 1999 assessment. For one, the new report throws out the agency’s own risk estimation for a child playing near a penta-treated utility pole by dismissing it as an unlikely scenario for exposure.

Beyond Pesticides Director Jay Feldman is critical of the EPA action. "The agency has acknowledged that the risks associated with these chemicals are excessive but has continued to allow their use despite viable alternatives," he says. "The EPA simply lacks the moral inclination to act on what its own scientists have found to be some of the most harmful chemicals on the planet."