By Cole Sinanian and Clayton Franke
As the JH Baxter wood treatment plant prepares to cease operations on Jan. 31, west Eugene residents are waiting for the company to announce its plan to clean up lawns after soil samples revealed elevated levels of cancer-causing dioxins.
Baxter hired consulting company GSI Water Solutions in the fall to take samples at the request of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for an ongoing investigation into dioxin contamination near the facility south of Roosevelt Boulevard. According to DEQ public affairs specialist Dylan Darling, Baxter is responsible for cleaning up the contaminated properties, even after the plant’s closure. Baxter is working with the DEQ to determine a cleanup plan, Darling said.
“DEQ will be engaged with Baxter as long as there are environmental issues to address at and near the facility,” Darling told Eugene Weekly in an email.
Baxter sent letters to 10 property owners across the street from the facility requesting permission to take soil samples. The DEQ received results from seven properties, six of which contained elevated levels of dioxins and will require cleanup, according to a DEQ press release from Jan. 13. The cleanup will involve removing and replacing contaminated soil, and will happen sometime this summer, Darling said.
In the middle of the cleanup discussions, Beyond Toxics Executive Director Lisa Arkin announced in a Jan. 26 press release that JH Baxter would cease operations in west Eugene, saying it was a community victory for the right to clean air.
“JH Baxter’s shutdown will mean that west Eugene residents will be spared the noxious and nauseating creosote fumes that have ruined their wellbeing for so long,” Arkin wrote. “This is the beginning of healing our community.”
In a letter sent to the city Jan 18, Arkin and Beyond Toxics had called on city councilors to request that Gov. Kate Brown direct the DEQ to temporarily close Baxter and remove the plant’s operating permit with a cease-and-desist order.
Lane Regional Air Protection Agency spokesperson Travis Knudsen said the agency heard from JH Baxter’s legal team on Jan. 18 that the company intended to cease operations at its west Eugene location by Jan. 31. He said the company hasn’t canceled its air permit, which allows the plant’s emissions. The permit is valid through June 7, 2023.
The DEQ’s soil sample analysis showed dioxin levels at more than 10 times the acceptable limit on some properties, according to results from the DEQ.
At high concentrations over a long period of time, dioxins can increase cancer risk and lead to thyroid and reproductive problems, said David Farrer, a toxicologist with the Oregon Health Authority (OHA). Constant direct contact with soil for years is most likely to increase health risks, Farrer said, which is why kids — who are more likely to swallow soil particles — are at a higher risk.
“We’re most concerned about young kids,” Farrer said. “They’re more likely to touch the soil with their hands and put their hands in their mouths than adults are.”
Tanya Stair has lived across the street from JH Baxter since the 1970s. She raised a family there and worries how the dioxins in the soil may have affected her and her kids’ health over time. Stair, who’s recovered from cervical cancer, watched for years as her three sons — one of whom has a learning disability — played in the dirt in their backyard. Baxter’s consultants tested the soil in her yard for dioxins in September and found elevated levels, warranting a cleanup.
“You just don’t know what’s causing what,” she said.
As an avid gardener, Stair spent many summers in the dirt herself, planting flowers and cultivating her garden. She wonders why it took regulators so long to test the soil, given Baxter’s history of environmental violations.
“I wish they’d taken care of this a long time ago,” Stair said. “First it was the smell, then it was the groundwater contamination and now this.”
Baxter’s consultants also sampled the soil at Trainsong Park — a few blocks to the north of JH Baxter — to collect background data, and unexpectedly found dangerously high levels of dioxins similar to that of the properties next to Baxter.
The city closed the park and is working with the DEQ to determine next steps, the DEQ press release states. While further analysis is needed to determine the source of the dioxins, Darling said it’s unlikely they’re related to Baxter. Because samples taken at properties between Baxter and Trainsong did not show elevated levels, the dioxins found at Trainsong are likely from other sources, Darling said.
“Just look at the history of the park and the surrounding industry,” he said. “There’s been a lot of different things in that area over time.”
The DEQ has asked Baxter to conduct another round of sampling that expands the radius of the initial tests sometime “soon,” the release said.
The soil sample results come after a decades-long history of environmental violations by Baxter. In March 2021, the DEQ fined Baxter $223,440 for mistreatment of hazardous waste from 2015-2019 and for allowing untreated stormwater to flow into Amazon Creek in 2019.
JH Baxter then appealed the fine and has not yet paid it. The company remains in settlement negotiations with the DEQ.
In a 2021 cancer study conducted by the OHA, researchers found slightly higher rates of lung cancer and Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the neighborhoods surrounding Baxter compared to local averages, though the OHA said it’s nearly impossible to definitively attribute these results to pollution.
Per the DEQ press release, the OHA provided recommendations on how to minimize risk for people whose properties are contaminated with dioxins. These recommendations include handwashing, removing shoes before entering the house and “avoiding activities that disturb large amounts of soil.”
But Stair has no plans to put her passion for gardening on hold anytime soon. All she wants, she said, is for her property to get cleaned soon so she can live her life without the fear of dioxin poisoning.
“If they’re gonna clean up my soil, just get it done so I can do what I have to do,” she said. “It just seems like it takes forever for them to do anything.”
JH Baxter CEO Georgia Baxter did not respond to Eugene Weekly’s request for comment.