A log shows the depth of creosote penetration as Department of Natural Resources crews remove ropes from timbers taken from Elger Bay via helicopter on Monday on Camano Island. The logs were then shipped to a landfill. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

A log shows the depth of creosote penetration as Department of Natural Resources crews remove ropes from timbers taken from Elger Bay via helicopter on Monday on Camano Island. The logs were then shipped to a landfill. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Purchase Photo

Goodbye, creosote: Cleanup underway at Elger Bay salt marsh

The toxic wood preservative was once ubiquitous in Washington. On Camano, it threatens salmon.

CAMANO ISLAND — The log being hoisted into the air was a 1,500-pounder.

A “big boy,” the pilot radioed.

Dangling from a long rope, it swayed as the helicopter plucked it from the salt marsh along Camano Island’s Elger Bay and carried it to a nearby landing spot in a grassy field.

From there, it will be hauled off to a landfill. It wasn’t just any old log. It was soaked in creosote, an oily coal-based liquid used as a preservative that for a century was ubiquitous at Washington’s docks and piers. Until recently, locals could see it at work at the old Mukilteo ferry dock, held up by more than 200 creosote-stained wood pilings, before it was demolished and barged away.

Creosote has largely been phased out, as concrete and metal have become the favored building materials. And now scientists have found the liquid — a cocktail of more than 300 chemicals — to be dangerous to fish and humans alike. Each foot of log carries with it about a gallon of creosote.

Among the long list of chemicals are something particularly nasty called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a known carcinogen, said Chris Robertson, the aquatic restoration manager for the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

Over time, creosote-treated pilings can leach chemicals into the surrounding sediments, and people can be exposed to toxic vapors on a hot day or through direct contact, according to the state.

The toxin can be picked up by fish — such as the salmon using the Elger Bay salt marsh as rearing habitat — and spread through Puget Sound’s food web. Studies show it can kill or cause developmental abnormalities in aquatic life.

“It’s also really not great for the public,” Robertson said. As a phototoxin, it can burn someone who touches it.

It also smells.

Department of Natural Resources crews wave flags to a helicopter as they remove creosote-soaked logs from Elger Bay on Monday on Camano Island. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Department of Natural Resources crews wave flags to a helicopter as they remove creosote-soaked logs from Elger Bay on Monday on Camano Island. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Crews with the Department of Natural Resources spent a couple weeks at the Elger Bay salt marsh prepping the creosote logs to be taken out. Then, on Monday and Tuesday, the crews flagged the helicopter down as it made trip after trip to the shoreline, taking with it one or a few pieces of wood at a time, pausing every so often to refuel.

By the time they were done, Robertson estimated about a hundred tons of creosote wood was taken out of the marsh.

That’s a lot, he confirmed.

The helicopter was flown by Hi Line Helicopters out of Darrington, a company that specializes in scenic tours and “technical external load operation.”

A large piece of the Elger Bay estuary was donated a few years ago to the Whidbey Camano Land Trust, allowing the state to manage cleanup and preserve it for the future. The trust bought another 20 acres in 2020.

As the tide rises, saltwater from Puget Sound rushes its way through narrow passageways, providing prime habitat for salmon spawning, as well as shorebirds.

The tide also brings in logs and wood remnants, some of it soaked in creosote.

The state’s creosote piling removal program has been around since 2004. So far, crews have hauled off more than 21,000 tons of wood debris covered in the stuff — enough to cover six football fields.

It can at times feel like a Sisyphean effort, as tides bring new debris to shores, and yet more creosote to clean up.

Robertson said the wood has no secondary use, so it’s taken to the dump.

“It just needs to get out of the aquatic environment,” he said.

Zachariah Bryan: 425-339-3431; zbryan@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @zachariahtb.

Talk to us

More in Local News

A resident reported finding a dead Asian giant hornet near Marysville on June 4. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)
Dead ‘murder hornet’ found in Marysville, a first for county

It could be from a previous season, scientists say, because males don’t typically emerge this early.

Jeff Thoreson does a cheer with his second grade class before the start of their kickball game on his last in-person day of school on Thursday, June 17, 2021 in Snohomish, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Snohomish teacher hit the right notes in memorable career

Jeff Thoreson will retire this month after molding minds at Riverview Elementary School for 41 years.

FILE - In this Dec. 16, 2020, file photo, Staff Sgt. Travis Snyder, left, receives the first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine given at Madigan Army Medical Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, south of Seattle. Nurse Jose Picart, right, administered the shot. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday, June 17, 2021, announced a new COVID-19 vaccine incentive lottery for the state's military, family members and veterans because the federal government wasn't sharing individual vaccine status of those groups with the state and there were concerns they would be left out of a previously announced lottery. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
New vaccine lottery announced for military in Washington

Gov. Inslee said there were concerns they would be left out of a previously announced lottery.

Police: After short chase in Marysville, man dies by suicide

Officers responded to a domestic violence call. The suspect reportedly shot himself at the end of a chase.

The Everett Police Department has asked the City Council to keep its nine Stay Out of Drug Areas, zones where people arrested for drug crimes are not allowed. (City of Everett)
Everett police ask council to renew 9 drug enforcement areas

SODAs are a legal tool that prohibits people arrested for drug crimes from entering certain areas.

Sequoia High graduates move their tassels from one side to the other at the end of the graduation ceremony on Thursday, June 17, 2021 in Everett, Washington. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Gallery: Sequoia High Graduation

Sequoia High School graduates receive their diplomas

Woman killed in hit-and-run south of Everett is identified

Detectives have been searching for the vehicle that struck Katherine Mueller, 31, of Snohomish.

Pallet communities are groups of tiny homes for unhoused people. Here, a worker installs weatherstripping on a pallet shelter at Pallet in Everett in January 2020. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)
Tiny home community is proposed at a Marysville church

The Pallet shelter community would provide transitional housing to eight people. Neighbors have questions.

In Edmonds, ‘small cell’ deployment permit becomes a big deal

The City Council has allowed new cellular equipment under an ordinance that regulates conditions.

Most Read