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Creosote piling debate still sticky

Specialists, preservationists discuss the biology of treated wood.

As evidence that marine life and creosote can coexist, one scientist showed photos of treated pilings teeming with animals.

To counter that, another showed how some organisms can withstand creosote exposure, but to others the substance is crippling.

Yet a third strayed slightly from science, instead pointing to a recent ban of creosote by the state of New Jersey – long the butt of jokes about pollution.

“That’s New Jersey, for God’s sake,” said marine scientist Paul Dinnel, one of four on hand at City Hall this week to discuss the science of creosote.

The issue has gained focus since the city and state in August announced plans to remove some 800 treated pilings from island shorelines.

The average piling, scientists say, holds on about 61 gallons of creosote, which was once commonly used to treat wood products.

Scientists generally agree that creosote can damage fish and other marine wildlife, but disagree over whether old pilings are a significant enough threat to warrant their removal.

The removal work would begin next year and would be funded by the state at a cost of $500,000.

For now it would be confined to the island’s eastern shoreline, and would only proceed with the blessing of individual property owners, many of whom have already been contacted by the city.

But historic preservationists, and even some City Councilors, have voiced concerns since the plan was announced.

Preservationists say pilings – which at one time supported docks or other marine structures – are reminders of the island’s history, and are too old to be leaching at any significant rate.

Jefferson County scientist Kenneth Brooks, who performs risk assessments for both the government and private companies and has studied creosote for 20 years, made a biological argument for preserving pilings.

“They create a miraculous habitat,” Brooks said. “Creosote logs don’t belong on beaches, but where we have sound structures, it’s important to protect the organisms that live there.”

To illustrate his point, he flashed a series of pictures on the screen behind him, all of which showed a plethora of piling-supported life.

“Notice how clean they are,” he said. “And they’re not dominated by one or two pollutant-tolerant critters.”

He furthered his point by showing data that indicated leaching of creosote from pilings decreases exponentially over time.

Scientist Doris Small, of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, agreed with part of Brooks’ assessment, saying that pilings, in addition to supporting underwater life, also provide above-water habitat for birds.

“Yes, they are habitat,” Small said. “But there already was habitat there.”

Small contended that pilings and other marine structures replaced existing habitat that, although perhaps not visibly active with life, are nonetheless important to the overall health of marine ecosystems.

“We’re going to make a lot of difficult choices,” Small said of Puget Sound cleanup. “But I think this is a relatively easy one.”

She, like three of the four panelists at the meeting, favors removal of pilings, whenever possible.

Tracy Collier, a scientist with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a 30-year island resident, also acknowledged that some marine life can thrive near creosote. But for fish, especially herring, he said the substance is devastating because it inhibits development.

“You need to grow fast so you can eat or else you get eaten,” Collier said. “I am convinced that the more we can reduce (creosote levels), the better off Puget Sound will be.”

History, he added, should be a factor; but the health of marine life should trump that. The city is nearing the end of its historical review of the project, done concurrently with preservationists, according to city shorelines planner Peter Namtvedt Best.

“I do appreciate the historic significance of these structures,” Collier said. “I also appreciate the toxic loads in pilings that in my view should be removed.”

Over the past two years, the state Department of Natural Resources has removed more than 1,300 pilings and 900 tons of derelict beach debris from Puget Sound shorelines.

Planners and volunteers have already begun inventory work on the island.

When cleanup begins, removed pilings and beach logs will be placed on a barge and taken to a landfill in Eastern Washington.

This week’s meeting was the second hosted by the city to address concerns among community members about the project.

Last week a new issue emerged when some city councilors expressed concerns about piling removal as part of the restoration work at the Strawberry Plant site in Eagle Harbor.

They were worried that accepting grant money for the project might limit the city’s ability to plan for future water recreation there. The council tweaked the motion before them, but ultimately accepted the money, allowing the project to move ahead.

Calling creosote “nasty stuff,” Dinnel said the substance is one of many threats to local waters.

“There are just so many sources,” he said. “Basically, Puget Sound is suffering a death by 1,000 cuts.”

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