EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and Oregon Health Authority are looking into elevated levels of dioxins, a group of toxic chemical compounds, in soil samples taken around the J.H. Baxter Street wood treatment facility, south of Roosevelt Boulevard in Eugene.
Though one sample was near residential properties, the levels of dioxins around the facility do not pose an immediate health risk to residents of the neighborhood, DEQ spokesperson Dylan Darling told The Register-Guard.
The eight off-site soil samples were given to DEQ as required under a October 2019 cleanup plan. Four results, including one in the Bethel neighborhood directly north of the facility and three stormwater ditch locations, indicated elevated levels of dioxins.
The results indicate the need for more investigation to understand the source and the extent of the contamination to guide next steps and if cleanup may be needed.
“We found enough dioxins in the soil that it’s worth looking into,” Darling said. “That doesn’t mean that there’s a public health problem, but does means we need more evaluation.”
A Baxter spokesperson was not available for comment.
The 31-acre site at 85 Baxter St. has been an active wood treatment facility since the early 1940s. Historical spills and operational practices have resulted in soil and groundwater contamination, the DEQ release said. Additionally, the facility has had issues with air emissions and concerns from residents about odors and possible health effects related to the facility.
DEQ created a technical work group with the Lane Regional Air Protection Agency, the city of Eugene and OHA to oversee a comprehensive investigation of the environmental concerns at Baxter. It is working with Baxter to develop a plan for additional sampling by January.
The agencies will be forming a community engagement group to inform and address concerns from those living near the facility. The first meeting is being planned for December, though DEQ doesn’t expect to have results before then.
“One of main things we need to find out is what the source is. You want to find out if there are even more places with elevated dioxins,” Darling said.
Over the next few months, DEQ will be working with LRAPA and OHA to collect soil samples from private property to complement current specimens from public rights of way like ditches and stormwater culverts in the surrounding property.
Agencies want to release new information as soon possible, but this most likely won’t happen until well into 2021. Previous issues at JH Baxter had to do more with wastewater than soil.
This is not Baxter’s first run-in with DEQ. In 2004, the Lane Regional Air Protection Agency logged more than 700 complaints from 100 households near the plant alleging sickness from fumes from the company’s chemical applications. DEQ also noted arsenic in soil on the property and pentachlorophenol spreading in the aquifer under the neighborhood. This led to Baxter spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to mitigate this damage.
In 2007, a three-year investigation by health researchers, encompassing 14,694 households in six census tracts that took in much of the Bethel, River Road and Trainsong neighborhoods, found a suspicious pattern of lung cancer and an acute form of leukemia near the train tracks and the J.H. Baxter creosoting plant.
Additionally, from 2017 through 2019, DEQ served Baxter with a pre-enforcement notice for several violations of hazardous waste and water quality regulations, ranging from Class I (most serious) to Class III (less serious) violations.
This included a $19,200 fine in 2018 for multiple stormwater violations at its wood treatment plant dating back to late 2015. DEQ noted eight instances between December 2015 and November 2017 in which stormwater runoff from the J.H. Baxter property that drains into Amazon Creek contained levels of pentachlorophenol or copper above the threshold of the company’s pollutant discharge permit.
In 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fined the company $64,000 and required Baxter to construct new berms and drainage on the drip pads when storing toxic waste to ensure preservatives did not migrate into the ground.
In 2019, Baxter and state regulators finalized a cleanup plan with Baxter to reduce the health risk stemming from soil and groundwater contamination at its 31-acre site on Roosevelt Boulevard. This followed more than 60 odor complaints to the Lane Regional Air Protection Agency on Oct. 6, 2019.
It is currently unclear if further violations contributed to the current elevated levels of dioxins in soil near the site, but this will be part of DEQ’s investigation.