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)

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 Port Angeles police officer cordons off an empty lot in Sequim on Thursday as law enforcement officials investigate an incident in the area. (Michael Dashiell/Olympic Peninsula News Group)
Man arrested in Sequim, connected to homicide, has Snohomish County ties

A dead woman was found in Bret Allen Kenney’s home, police say. He previously attacked Snohomish County Jail guards.

LOCAL - MOUNTAIN LOOP HIGHWAY
HERALD STAFF PHOTO BY JENNIFER BUCHANAN
PHOTO SHOT 062208
A car makes its way through a winding unpaved section of the Mountain Loop Highway 15 miles outside of Darrington.
14-mile scenic stretch of Mountain Loop Highway opens early

The highway between Granite Falls and Darrington reopened to traffic on Friday due to good weather.

Britney Barber, owner of Everett Improv. Barber performs a shows based on cuttings from The Everett Herald. Photographed in Everett, Washington on May 16, 2022. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Cut this paper up and have a laugh at Everett Improv

The troupe’s new recurring “Boozie Newzie” show is based off clippings from The Daily Herald. Meta, dude.

HIdden River Middle School (Monroe School District)
Monroe school employee on leave for ‘racially insensitive language’

The incident took place at Hidden River Middle School. Also, police were investigating racist vandalism found at another school.

Svetlana Kravchenko appears in court for her sentencing Thursday, May 19, 2022, at the Snohomish County Courthouse in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Everett woman gets community service in 2019 fatal hit-and-run

Svetlana Kravchenko was required to stay at the scene after hitting and killing Te Nguyen, 83. Instead, she went home.

A tiny homes program that opened in early July began with each unit claimed and a wait list of 60. Here Patrick Diller, head of community partnerships for Pallet, discusses the Pallet Shelter Pilot Project on June 29, 2021 in Everett. (Katie Hayes / Herald file)
Everett marks $2.7 million in federal funds for homeless housing

With the American Rescue Plan money, the city’s small housing program for unsheltered people could expand to three sites.

WSDOT workers open up the Smokey Point Rest Area on Tuesday, May 17, 2022 in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Free coffee will be back soon at Smokey Point rest areas

Everett’s Silver Lake rest area for southbound I-5 drivers remains closed while WSDOT works on the facility.

Everett
Pro skateboarding competition coming to Everett in August

Street League Skateboarding’s championship tour will be at Angel of the Winds arena for two days.

Drivers heading north on Interstate 5 will take a detour from Highway 104 to 220th Street SW and back to I-5 this weekend during nightly lane closures for Sound Transit light rail work. (Sound Transit)
Light rail work closing I-5 North lanes nightly this weekend

Crews need to close northbound lanes between 220th Street SW and Highway 104. Drivers have two detour options.

Most Read