A recent draft report from the Oregon Health Authority found high levels of dioxin contamination in some yards in a Eugene neighborhood. Dioxins are highly toxic pollutants that can cause cancer, reproductive problems and damage to immune systems. Residents have been instructed to keep their children from playing in the dirt and to not eat eggs from backyard chickens until the soil can be replaced.
The contamination likely stemmed from the nearby J.H. Baxter plant, which treated wood products with rot-prevention chemicals like creosote. The plant accrued fines for emissions violations and chemical mishandling and raised complaints from neighbors for years before it shuttered in 2022. The OHA report is part of a state and federal investigation into contamination at and around the site.
Christian Wihtol has been covering this issue for The Lund Report. He joins us with more details on the agency’s findings.
Editor’s note: Christian Wihtol stated during the interview that dioxin contamination remediation has been completed at Eugene’s Trainsong Park. That is incorrect. An area of the park is still closed to residents since contaminated soil has not yet been removed or covered.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, This is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. A recent draft report from the Oregon Health Authority found high levels of dioxin contamination in some yards in the Eugene neighborhood. The levels were high enough that some residents have been instructed to not eat eggs from their backyard chickens until their soil can be replaced, and to keep their children from playing in the dirt. The contamination likely stemmed from a now closed factory that made treated wood products. Christian Wihtol has been covering this issue for the Lund Report. He is a senior contributing writer there, and he joins us now with more details on the agency’s findings. Welcome to Think Out Loud.
Christian Wihtol: Hello, Dave. Thanks for having me on the program.
Miller: Thanks for joining us. So this draft report focuses on a neighborhood in Northwest Eugene. Can you give us just a sense for what Bethel is like?
Wihtol: It’s a lower to moderate income area immediately north of the JH Baxter plant, the plant that you referenced. It’s large, there’s hundreds of homes there, and those folks live right next to what, for a couple of decades, has been a real sore point for them.
Miller: What did JH Baxter do?
Wihtol: JH Baxter was a creosoting plant. They creosoted telephone poles and railroad ties and other heavy industrial type timbers.
Miller: Sort of a wood preservative so that they could last for decades?
Wihtol: That’s right, very heavy duty wood preservatives that made these important products last for a long time, and also created a lot of pollution at the Baxter site, and created pollution off-site too.
Miller: The focus of this new report by the Oregon Health Authority is Dioxin. What is it? And what are the potential health effects of it?
Wihtol: Dioxin is a chemical waste product, a byproduct of creosoting, but it’s also emitted by pulp and paper mills, and it’s a very common pollutant around the world. It’s present in a lot of food, it’s present in animal feed, and then it gets into people because of the animal products that people eat. So it’s a very common pollutant.
It’s quite hazardous. In higher doses it can create skin problems, it can create developmental disabilities, it can create reproductive problems. And it’s also been linked with cancers.
Miller: What did state investigators find when they did their most recent investigation?
Wihtol: They’ve been studying and taking soil samples of different yards in the neighborhood immediately north of the Baxter plant since 2020. So they’ve been doing this work for a long time. They found that there were high enough levels in seven backyards that soil there needs to be more extensively tested, and then they’ll need to excavate certain amounts of soil that have dioxin in them and then replace them with clean fill. They’re also continuing to study I think up to 28 additional yards.
Miller: What specific recommendations do they provide to those residents who had the highest levels of dioxin in their yards?
Wihtol: There were a couple of things that they focused on. They basically wanted to avoid extensive human contact with the soil in those yards. So they focused on young kids that should not spend a lot of time playing in the soil of the yards, and also chickens which would roam around in the yards, their eggs should not be eaten. Those were the two main cautions that they made.
Miller: You noted this, that residents have been concerned about their health and what this plant was putting out for a long time now. What have you heard from residents now that this draft report from the Oregon Health Authority has been released?
Wihtol: Well, residents have known that there’s dioxin present because these results have been released earlier. This report that the OHA and other state agencies put out kind of summarized and put into great detail the findings. They’re not happy about it. But at the same time, they’re happy that the Department of Environmental Quality is working on a solution to this, which is cleaning up these backyards and getting them habitable again.
Miller: What’s the status of the JH Baxter company right now?
Wihtol: The JH Baxter company as a corporation still exists. It’s registered in California, that’s where it’s headquartered, and its registration is still current in Oregon. It’s unclear whether it has any operations or any assets. In the distant past, it was a large company. It had seven wood creosoting plants, three in Washington, two in Oregon, one in Wyoming and one in California. But all of those appear to be closed.
Miller: What does that mean in terms of liability here?
Wihtol: The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality says it considers JH Baxter to be liable for all the costs involved in testing and cleanup and so on. But Baxter has told the state that they don’t have any money. So the Department of Environmental Quality has designated the Baxter plant an orphan site. And so testing and cleanup and so on would be funded by the state.
Miller: So all the, say, dirt removal that could be to come, or the testing that’s already happened, so far the state is picking up the tab for that?
Wihtol: That’s correct. And the state gets the money for that from two sources. One is from the general fund, from taxpayers. And the other is from a fee that is paid by companies that handle hazardous materials.
Miller: What happened when you tried to get in touch with this company?
Wihtol: I have not been able to figure out how to get in touch with Baxter currently. I was in touch with them years ago when I visited the plant, they actually gave me a tour there and so on. But I have not been able to figure out how to contact them.
Miller: We’ve been talking about the areas closest to the old JH Baxter site, and those are the areas that are the focus of most of this new report from the Oregon Health Authority. But sort of as a safeguard, they also tested some surrounding areas. If I understand the report correctly, it’s to test their idea that it was really just closest to this old factory where the highest levels of dioxin would be most likely. But the report also found that another area, a place called Trainsong Park, also had high levels. What did investigators say about that?
Wihtol: What they determined was that that park was too far away from the Baxter plant for the dioxin in the soil there to likely have come in the air from the Baxter plant. They just figured it came from somewhere else, but where else it came from is unclear. The Trainsong Park is right next to a heavy industrial rail yard. But it is unclear where that additional contamination came from.
Miller: What are the implications for people who are going to that park?
Wihtol: The government, I’m not sure if it was the city or the DEQ, removed some soil there and capped other soil with asphalt or sand to make it meet safety standards.
Miller: What is the next step for residents in Bethel, the people whose yards were most affected by this half-disappeared company?
Wihtol: The DEQ is going to be doing more testing in those seven yards to determine the depth of the dioxin contamination, how much soil needs to be removed. And then they would go in and do the removal, and then replacement with clean fill. And then at the same time, the DEQ is pursuing testing at about 28 other yards to determine the contamination there.
Miller: Christian Wihtol, thanks very much for joining us.
Wihtol: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.
Miller: Christian Wihtol is a senior contributing writer for The Lund Report. He joined us to talk about the Oregon Health Authority’s recent draft report looking into dioxin contamination in the Bethel neighborhood of Eugene.
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