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Despite cleanup, creosote toxins common in our waters

The discovery may encourage greater steps to remove old pilings coated with the preservative.

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By Bill Sheets
Herald Writer
EVERETT -- Perhaps the biggest surprise in a recent study of pollution in Puget Sound and other waterways was the amount of toxic material from wood soaked with creosote, a state official said.
Creosote, an oily, coal-based liquid used to preserve wood, was extensively applied to pier pilings and bulkheads through most of the 20th century. Creosote contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which have been known to cause health problems in fish.
Creosote-treated wood has been banned in new construction along the water by the state and by some cities. New rules are proposed to write the ban into Snohomish County code. Numerous cleanup efforts in the state have taken place in recent years.
Still, the pollutants are prevalent in salt water in Western Washington, said Rob Duff, an environmental manager for the state Department of Ecology.
For example, more than 3,000 creosote-soaked pilings still support the long-ago mothballed pier at the former Air Force gasoline tank farm in Mukilteo, city planning director Heather McCartney said.
While creosote-treated materials are prohibited in new construction in Mukilteo, creosote-treated pilings and bulkheads are "grandfathered," meaning they're allowed to remain until voluntarily removed by property owners. The same goes for the state, Everett and proposed new county rules. Officials for Edmonds could not be reached for comment Monday.
The study's findings could help motivate the state to step up efforts to encourage removal of old creosote pilings and bulkheads from the water and stray creosote-soaked logs from beaches, officials said.
The five-year study, released last week, examined in detail the types of pollutants getting into the sound and other Western Washington waterways and how they get there. The study focused on 17 chemicals known to be the most prevalent in the water.
The study confirmed what officials suspected: that no one substance has caused the lion's share of environmental problems in the sound.
For example, petroleum-related compounds from motor oil drip and leak from cars and trucks and find their way into the water. Copper, which interferes with salmon's sense of smell, comes from urban pesticide use, brake pads and boat paint. Copper, cadmium, zinc and phthalates come from roofing materials. Phthalates are a group of chemicals commonly found in plastics. Phosphorus comes from lawn fertilizers.
Nonetheless, PAHs cause a significant share of the damage. The toxic compounds also are found in vehicle exhaust and wood smoke, which settle on pavement and are washed into streams and salt water.
Through new, advanced techniques, researchers in the study were able to "fingerprint" the type of PAHs and whether they came from vehicle exhaust, wood smoke or creosote, Duff said.
The state has organized about 20 cleanup projects in the past seven years, said Curt Hart, a spokesman for the ecology department. These involve removing creosote-treated logs that have washed up on beaches as well as taking out old piers and bulkheads on public property.
The state can't force removals on private land, and projects on federal property such as the Air Force pier in Mukilteo would be complicated and time-consuming, Hart said. A transfer of the Air Force property to the Port of Everett, which operates its own pier nearby, has been in the works for years but has yet to materialize.
Meanwhile, Mukilteo urges removal of pilings where it can, McCartney said.
For example, "if people come in and have damage on a pier, we're going to encourage them to use a different type of piling," she said.
The ferry system earlier this year removed some creosote pilings when it repaired its dock in Mukilteo and replaced them with floating concrete "dolphins" anchored underwater, McCartney said.
In Everett, property owners are given environmental credits for removing creosote-treated pilings and bulkheads, planning director Allen Giffen said. This means rules can be relaxed for the property owner on other projects, depending on the overall effect on the environment.
Snohomish County's new proposed code, planning director Clay White said, "is more direct about the types of materials you can use in the water."
The state's recent study was done in concert with the Puget Sound Partnership, an agency created by the Legislature to bring together various groups to work on ways to improve the health of the Sound and other waterways.
Gerry O'Keefe, the agency's director, said the study will give new impetus to making creosote removal a priority. That, in turn, could help the state get grants to fund more removal of pilings and bulkheads, Hart said. More research may be needed as well.
"We need to know more about how we tackle this huge problem," he said.
Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439;
Story tags » PollutionSalmonPuget SoundPossession Sound

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