Tag Archives: creosote

Is that a light I see shining at the end of restoration?

When it comes to ecosystem restoration, I love it when we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s rare when we have a chance to say that restoration is nearing completion, since we know that habitat work continues on and on, seemingly without end, in many areas of Puget Sound.

Last summer, a massive pond was constructed off Waaga Way to capture stormwater from developments that was flowing into Steele Creek. Photo by Larry Steagall
Last summer, a massive pond was constructed off Waaga Way to capture stormwater from Central Kitsap developments flowing straight into Steele Creek. / Photo by Larry Steagall

So let us anticipate a celebration when Kitsap County’s regional stormwater projects are completed, when all the deadly ghost nets have been removed from the shallow waters of Puget Sound, and when there are no more creosote pilings left on state tidelands.

Of course, the light at the end of the tunnel may be a mirage, but let’s not go there quite yet.

Kitsap regional ponds

Kitsap County has been collecting a Surface and Stormwater Management Fee from residents in unincorporated areas and using some of that money to leverage state and federal stormwater grants. The fee is currently $73.50, but it will rise to $78 in 2014, $82 in 2015, $86.50 in 2016, $91 in 2017 and $96 in 2018. See Kitsap Sun, Nov. 27, 2012.

The good news is that the effort to retrofit old, outmoded stormwater systems is nearing completion, with remaining projects either in design or nearing the design phase. Check out the Kitsap County Public Works Capital Facilities Program for a list of completed projects with maps as well as proposed projects with maps. As the documents show, the regional retrofits are on their way to completion.

So what are the sources of future stormwater problems? The answer is roads, and the problem is enormous. Still, the county has begun to address the issue with a pilot project that could become a model for other counties throughout Puget Sound. Please read my September story, “New strategies will address road runoff” (subscription) to see how the county intends to move forward.

Ghost nets and crab pots

Earlier this year, the Legislature provided $3.5 million to complete the removal of derelict fishing gear that keeps on killing in waters less than 105 feet deep. The work is to be done before the end of 2015.

Sites where known nets are still killing fish. Map courtesy of Northwest Straits Commission
Sites where known nets are still killing fish.
Map courtesy of Northwest Straits

Phil Anderson, director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, was excited about the prospect. Here’s what he said in a news release.

“Working in conjunction with our partners at Northwest Straits and in the State Legislature, we have made enormous strides toward eliminating the risks posed to fish and wildlife by derelict fishing gear. This is difficult work, and it requires a real commitment from everyone to get it done. We look forward to celebrating the next milestone in 2015.”

The most amazing statistic I found on this topic involved the number of animals trapped by ghost nets. According to one predictive model, if all the nets had been left alone to keep fishing, they could be killing 3.2 million animals each year.

For additional information, read the story I wrote for last Saturday’s Kitsap Sun (subscription) or check out the Northwest Straits webpage.

Creosote pilings and docks

Washington Department of Natural Resources hasn’t slowed down in its effort to remove old creosote pilings and docks. The structures can be toxic to marine life, obstruct navigation and snag fishing gear. By 2015, the total bill for removing such debris is expected to reach $13 million.

Nobody is sure how much it will cost to remove the last of the creosote materials from state lands, but DNR officials have inventoried the various sites and expect to come up with a final priority list over the next six months. Some pilings on privately owned land may be a higher priority for the ecosystem, and officials are trying to decide how to address those sites. Of course, nobody can tackle pilings on private lands without working through the property owners.

Download a spreadsheet of the work completed so far (PDF 53 kb), which involves a focus on 40 sites throughout Puget Sound. Altogether, the projects removed about 11,000 pilings plus about 250,000 square feet of “overwater structures,” such as docks.

I mentioned work underway in Jefferson County in my story last week (subscription), and reporter Tristan Baurick mentioned a specific cleanup project at Nick’s Lagoon (subscription) in Kitsap County. You may also wish to check out the DNR’s page on Creosote Removal.

More results, more questions found in toxic studies

Five years of studies and analysis have helped refine our understanding about the toxic pollution getting into the streams of Puget Sound and eventually into the open marine waters.

The latest study on toxic chemicals (PDF 3.1 mb) Click on image to download

The final report in the series was released yesterday, prompting a story I wrote for today’s Kitsap Sun.

When accounting for all the pollution, it’s not surprising to learn that the sources of toxic chemicals are so diverse that it is difficult to figure out where everything is coming from. But we do know that if chemicals are picked up in stormwater, they are likely to make their way into freshwater, where they pose short-term or long-term risks to aquatic organisms.

The solutions are common sense, if one can be assured of the sources of harmful chemicals:

  1. Remove materials from the environment if they are found to release toxic pollution. This can involve a legal ban on certain products or else educating people to select less toxic alternatives.
  2. Reduce the amount of stormwater that flows into streams by infiltrating rainwater into the ground before it leaves the site. This “low-impact development” can include permeable pavement, rain gardens and even natural forests where a thick organic carpet has been retained.
  3. Clean sediment out of storm drains and sweep up the dust on city streets and other areas where toxic chemicals are likely to reside in metallic form or be bound to soil particles. Safely dispose of these materials. When the rains arrive, there won’t be much left to wash into streams.

While all this sounds simple enough, the issue gets complicated when trying to decide which products to ban and when to recommend that people voluntarily stop using certain items. Alternative products may cost more, which tends to raise questions among users. Also, manufacturers and retailers are not likely to give up selling profitable products without a fight.

Further complicating the situation is the scientific uncertainty surrounding the alleged harm when someone declares a product not good for the environment. Such uncertainty inevitably sparks scientific, economic and policy debate about whether the proposed action is justified.

For example, the Washington Legislature approved a ban on automobile brake pads containing certain levels of copper. Brake pads are believed to release enough copper to harm salmon in some urban streams. But the metallic form of copper found in brake pads is not toxic until it is converted to an ionic form. How much gets converted in the environment is still a question. For details, see a story I wrote for the Kitsap Sun in March of 2010.

As for the latest study released yesterday, some additional focused research and debate may be needed before further actions can be taken.

For example, questions are raised about the total amount of toxic metals leached from roofing materials, including common asphalt shingles. Copper, cadmium, lead and zinc are listed as contaminants along with diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP).

As suggested by the report, direct studies of roofs in the Puget Sound region could help determine the potential harm of various roofing materials and suggest whether bans or advisories are appropriate.

The amount of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) coming from creosote-treated wood was something of a surprise in the report. If anything, the findings tend to support the ongoing effort by the Department of Natural Resources, which has been removing creosote pilings from shorelines. Further studies might help to focus removal efforts in areas most sensitive to creosote compounds.

The latest report, which includes discussions about the uncertainties, is called “Assessment of Selected Toxic Chemicals in the Puget Sound Basin, 2007-2011.” You may also wish to review all the toxics work to date on Ecology’s webpage called “Control of Toxic Chemicals in Puget Sound.”

A new perspective on creosote log removal

I’ve always wondered how much ecological good comes from removing old creosote pilings from along the shoreline, as the Washington Department of Natural Resources has been doing in its Creosote Removal Program.

A helicopter transports logs out of the salt marsh at Doe-Keg-Wats near Indianola in Kitsap County
Kitsap Sun photo by Meagan Reid

I was given a new perspective on the problem Tuesday, when I visited the Doe-Keg-Wats estuary. (See my story in Wednesday’s Kitsap Sun.) Now I am better able to see the value of removing creosote logs. Still, I wish a few more quantitative field studies would be done.

We all know that creosote, generally made from coal tar, contains numerous toxic chemicals. A study completed in 2006 for the National Marine Fisheries Service, titled “Creosote-Treated Wood in Aquatic Environments: Technical Review and Use Recommendations” (PDF 1.7 mb) talks about the many toxic constituents (p. 52), routes of exposure (p. 53-54) and toxicity (p. 54-65).

The report draws this important conclusion (p. 84):

“Overall, the laboratory and field studies described above indicate that treated wood structures can leach PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and other toxic compounds into the environment. However, the degree of PAH accumulation to sediment associated with these structures appears to be relatively minor in many settings, particularly in well-circulated waters….

“Nevertheless, there are several factors that suggest that a precautionary principle might be applicable to certain treated wood uses. First, the above studies typically have evaluated responses at the community level (e.g., the benthic invertebrate studies) or to tolerant life stages (e.g., adult oysters and mussels). However, the level of environmental protectiveness applied to T&E (threatened and endangered) species (such as endangered salmonids) should occur at the individual rather than the population or community level.

“Moreover, field studies have indicated that PAHs can accumulate to potentially deleterious concentrations in poorly circulated water bodies or when the density of treated wood structures is high compared to the overall surface area of the water body. As a result, site-specific evaluations of risk should be conducted for treated wood projects that are proposed for areas containing sensitive life stages, species of special concern, or where water circulation and dilution are potentially low….”

This brings us to Doe-Keg-Wats, which appears to be one of the most pristine estuaries in the Puget Sound Region. Take a look at the aerial photo at the bottom of this page.

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Who has a better solution for Eagle Harbor cleanup?

Officials with the Washington Department of Ecology plan to step back from the Wyckoff-Eagle Harbor Superfund Site on Bainbridge Island, pull community members together and begin looking for a new way to clean up the underground mess.

The ground near the entrance to Eagle Harbor became saturated with toxic creosote from the Wyckoff wood-treatment plant, which operated there for 80 years. After working on the problem more than 20 years and spending close to $100 million, the Environmental Protection Agency has announced a final solution.

The idea approved by the agency is to pump the waste out of the ground at a rate that will keep pollution from reaching Eagle Harbor, while leaving hundreds of thousands of gallons of waste buried for 100 years or more.

EPA has asked Ecology to sign off on the cleanup plan and take over operation of the pumping system. Check out the Kitsap Sun story by reporter Tristan Baurick.

Tim Nord, Ecology’s toxics cleanup manager, told me there are two reasons the state is unwilling to take over at this time. One is the uncertainty of leaving such a huge amount of waste in the ground. The second is that running the pumping system could cost between $700,000 and $1.5 million each year with no end in sight.

In his story, Tristan pointed out that the EPA may have lost $3 million by not getting a final agreement with the state, but that seems like peanuts compared to the ongoing costs that nobody wants to pay.

Nord has informed the EPA that the state cannot agree to the longterm remedy that agency staff proposed.

In the meantime, Nord will take an unprecedented step outside normal regulatory procedures by creating a panel of experts who might just come up with a new idea. It will be a wide-open discussion that will include the city of Bainbridge Island, the Suquamish Tribe and the Association of Bainbridge Communities — none of whom like the idea of leaving all that waste in the ground — as well as other interested people, he said.

“I am trying to look at this problem differently,” Nord told me. “Is there a way to get as much of that material out of the ground as possible?”

It isn’t so much about how long it will take to reach some numerical cleanup standard, Nord said. It is about the community, including people who would like to create a safe park on that site to be used for generations.

If the best minds in the business can come up with a plan for mass removal, then it will be laid out for a full discussion.

“The people need to be able to follow it, trust in it and believe in it,” Nord said.

Nord was not ready to talk about the step to follow, which will involve money. But if his group finds a viable solution, I would bet that state and federal elected officials could work together to get it done.

Given the ecological value of Eagle Harbor, I can understand why so many people feel uncomfortable with the idea of running pumps forever to hold back pollution from seeping into the bay.

How much does it really help to remove old pilings?

Old wooden pilings sticking up out of the water serve as a reminder of our maritime past, so their removal kind of tears at a piece of history. Tristan Baurick, writing for the Kitsap Sun, addressed this issue in a story Feb. 10:

Wes McClain watched with mixed feelings as a crane yanked more than 100 old pilings from the waves near his home.

“I’m not too happy to see this place change,” the 17-year-old said Sunday while pilings were heaped onto a barge near Eagle Harbor’s Strawberry Plant property. “But if it’s for making the environment better, that’s OK.”

That about says it for many people, although more than a few have told me that they see the old pilings as an eyesore, so it’s good riddance.

Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out how bad these old creosote pilings are to the environment.

Creosote is a distillate of coal tar. You know it’s toxic, because these old pilings have warded off the influence of biological organisms for many years. But how much of the chemical is getting into the water?

I’ve heard it said that the average piling contains 60 gallons of creosote. I assume that this amount was what went into the wood when it was first treated. But how much is left in the wood and how much is getting into the water? I’m still trying to track down this information, and I’ve asked for help from the Department of Natural Resources.

Meanwhile, studies have shown that creosote, even in aging pilings, can have a detrimental effect on fish. A study in 2000 by Carol A. Vines, et. al., showed that all herring embryos that attached to creosote-treated wood died within days and 40 to 50 percent that were nearby also failed to develop. Of those that did survive, 93 percent experienced a reduction in heart rate with abnormal rhythms. The findings go on in that fashion in the article was published in the journal “Aquatic Toxicology.”

If anybody is aware of other scientific articles on this subject, please let me know.