August 3, 2006

Getting the creosote out of Puget Sound

  • DNR program’s goal is to remove 3,300 tons of creosote-treated material by the summer of 2007.

    Photo courtesy DNR
    There are hundreds of thousands of pilings in Puget Sound; each contains hundreds of pounds of creosote.

    The Department of Natural Resources first developed and began a restoration program on aquatic lands in 2002, with creosote removal as a focus. This program has been so successful that the governor added $2 million to the effort for the fiscal year beginning July 2006.

    We are now engaged in a large-scale creosote removal program in Puget Sound as part of the governor’s Puget Sound Initiative. Our goal is to remove 3,300 tons of creosote-treated material by June 30, 2007.

    Since 2002, we have assisted various state and local programs with the removal of 450 tons of creosote-treated wood from beaches in the north part of Puget Sound. Primary cleanup efforts have been focused in Whatcom, Skagit and Island counties. In addition, many more tons of pilings have been removed by the Department of Transportation, cities of Bellingham and Port Townsend, and the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe.

    Creosote is a toxic chemical that has been commonly used as a wood preservative for over 50 years. It acts as a pesticide, herbicide and fungicide and has been used widely in both land and marine applications.

    Unfortunately, the same mechanisms that make creosote effective at protecting wood products may be resulting in acute and chronic adverse impacts to our aquatic environment.

    A toxic compound

    Recent studies have shown that creosote compounds are toxic and carcinogenic to a variety of organisms. Herring eggs exposed to creosote in water showed 95 percent mortality while the remaining 5 percent had birth defects. English sole develop liver lesions when exposed to creosote. These and other impacted species are part of the food chain for creatures like salmon and orca whales.

    Our cleanup program is concerned with two primary exposure pathways.

    The first of these occurs when aquatic organisms try to grow on old creosote structures. Some manage to survive but pass on their contamination to other creatures. Some may die or experience reduced life expectancy because of creosote exposure. Other organisms try to spawn on the pilings and associated vegetation and are impacted by the material that leaches into the water.

    The second pathway is through material that ends up on beaches from derelict creosote structures. Pilings and various types of structural materials lie on beaches, and creosote leaches out into the sediments. Some of this material appears to be finding its way into the groundwater and marine waters along our beaches. There, crustaceans and forage fish such as smelt and herring come in contact with creosote-contaminated waters as they spawn on the beach. Forage fish are a significant concern because they are a key part of the salmon food supply.

    The public is also exposed to creosote on beaches. As people walk or play, they are exposed to creosote vapors on hot days and through direct contact with creosote material lying on the beach. Many of our beaches have considerable accumulations of creosote material intermixed with natural, clean beach logs and debris.

    The contaminated material increases exposure in many ways — especially for children crawling around on logs. Often beach material is used to build play structures for camps. Some people unwittingly use creosote-treated wood for beach fires and may even cook food with it.

    A chronic problem

    Though more studies are needed, these initial efforts reveal a disturbing picture of a chronic problem in Puget Sound. There are thousands of derelict structures and hundreds of thousands of pilings in the sound. Each contains hundreds of pounds of creosote. It is estimated that each piling contains about one gallon of creosote per cubic foot of wood. Millions of tons of creosote are dispersed on beaches and in structures of varying conditions throughout the sound.

    Our creosote cleanup will be a multi-year project. To date, our work has primarily been directed at beach cleanups in the northern Puget Sound. However, we have recognized that the sources of the contamination need to be addressed before we can be truly successful with our beach efforts.

    Now, with significantly enhanced funding through the governor’s Puget Sound Initiative and through several additional funding sources, we are expanding our efforts to remove derelict structures and pilings throughout the sound, in addition to beach cleanup.

    As derelict structures and individual pilings slowly deteriorate through time and wave action, many break off and then float away. We find there are some beaches and small bays around the sound that seem to be magnets for accumulating high quantities of this material. Previously, those areas have been our focus for cleanup. Now we will directly attack the source by removing as many old unused structures and pilings as our funding will allow.

    A group effort

    Many are helping to make this effort possible. One of our major partners is the Northwest Straits Commission. We are also fortunate to have the assistance of Washington State University Beachwatchers, Marine Resources Committees, and People for Puget Sound to help us recruit and train volunteers who do the bulk of the beach surveys.

    The Washington Conservation Corps has done most of the beach cleanup work. Funding and in-kind services have been provided by the following sources: the state Legislature through the governor’s Puget Sound Initiative; State Parks; the Coastal Protection Fund, NOAA’s Marine Debris Program; and in-kind contributions from local communities and organizations.

    Many other organizations have also been instrumental in moving this process along.

    This project presents a unique opportunity to work together to reduce impacts from this chronic source of contamination. Our goal to remove 3,300 tons of creosoted material by July 2007 would include at least 2,500 tons of pilings and 800 tons of beach debris. We also hope to inventory all derelict structures and establish an accurate database of the location of structures and debris on beaches.

    Additionally, we are working out a standardized permit process that will greatly enhance our ability to get the work done in a consistent and predictable manner.

    Finally, we are working hard to leverage every dollar spent on the project. Each project will be carefully documented to show the costs, the contributions and the results of our efforts.

    Targeted sites

    The following sites are targets for our 2006-2007 beach cleanups: Dungeness Spit, Blake Island, Whidbey Island and several sites in the San Juan Islands. We plan to remove pilings and structures in Port Angeles, Port Townsend, Tacoma, Olympia, Maury Island and Bellingham.

    The long-term answer to this problem will require the replacement of creosote materials with non-toxic alternatives. In the case of pilings, the standard for construction today is either steel or concrete. This replacement process will take years, if not decades.

    We are working toward significantly reducing the exposure caused by derelict structures and beach debris. At the same time, we are working with owners of marine structures to replace creosote pilings and structures with cleaner materials through normal repair replacement schedules.

    DNR manages more than 2.4 million acres of aquatic lands in Washington state. We are excited about the potential of the creosote cleanup program as part of our ongoing stewardship of these lands.

    As Commissioner of Public Lands, Doug Sutherland manages the state Department of Natural Resources and chairs the Board of Natural Resources, which sets policy for the management of the state’s lands.

    Other Stories:

    Copyright ©2009 Seattle Daily Journal and DJC.COM.
    Comments? Questions? Contact us.