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Health risks at creosote cleanup site are mulled

What hazards remain for the public at the still-polluted Superfund site?

Life was simpler before people wised up to the dangers of hazardous waste.

Charles Schmid recalls swimming in the Atlantic Ocean and coming home with tar on his feet. Jerry Elfendahl spoke of the the Japanese drug Seirogan, which touts creosote as its main ingredient to fight diarrhea.

While the small audience at the EPA’s five-year review of the Wyckoff Super-fund site chuckled at the expense of a more naive age, Richard Kauffman, senior regional representative for the Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry brought the issue home:

“With so many variables that affect public health, it’s very difficult to link specific contaminants to ailments.”

While the EPA is pushing for a containment plan on the controversial site at Bill Point, and the city, Suquamish Tribe and the state Department of Ecology are pushing for a more costly thermal treatment of underground creosote waste, community concerns about health hazards have not been addressed since the ATSDR’s last report on the site back in 1994.

Kauffman, a Bainbridge resident, is charged with gathering questions and concerns from the public, and finding or commissioning studies to respond to those concerns.

If findings show adverse health affects, he is to advise the EPA on actions that would limit public exposure to contaminants – still a major concern at the site.

The former Wyckoff wood treatment plan at Bill Point is one of nearly 1,300 National Priority List sites designated by the EPA known or threatening to release hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants into the environment. Thirty-three of these national sites have creosote contamination.

The long-term affects of creosote on human health is outlined on ATSDR’s website. High levels of creosote exposure can result in rash, skin irritation, eye damage and kidney or liver problems, and has been linked to increased instances of skin cancer.

Creosote vapors also pose a danger in the long term, potentially damaging eyes, skin and the respiratory tract.

That is what ATSDR cited in their 1994 public health assessment of the Wyckoff site, which found that “Eagle Harbor poses a public health hazard from exposure to (contaminants)...from consumption of fish, shellfish, and crab, and incidental ingestion of sediments...”

While Thursday’s meeting at City Hall was largely an overview of the EPA’s progress on the Wyckoff site over the past five years, and an unofficial nod to putting a cap on remaining contaminants, progress could be seen in the reduction of risks in the 13 years since the last ATSDR report.

ATSDR and the EPA agree that the level of toxins in Eagle Harbor do not pose a serious threat to human health, and that any contaminants in the water would not amount to an immediate public danger.

The EPA cites sediment and water sampling for dioxins that show, by and large, the estimated 1 million gallons of creosote below the Wyckoff site has been contained with hydraulic containment and a sub-tidal cap.

Most of the public concern Thursday came from members of the Pritchard Park planning committee, whose plans have to mesh with the EPA cleanup efforts.

The EPA is planning two major projects for 2008: construction of a new access road to replace the crumbling roadway of Creoste Place, and tackling two open areas of contamination on the west side of the property site that are currently cordoned off.

Environmental problems on the site were brought to public attention in 1984, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found an alarming amount of contaminants and lesions in the liver tissue of English sole in Eagle Harbor. The zone was found to be in dire need of clean up and listed as a federal Superfund site in 1987.

Despite the progress, there are still posted warnings regarding the potential dangers related to creosote exposure and shellfish consumption. The disregard for these signs by the public has some residents worried.

“Of course there is concern that some people will ignore the posted boundaries,” Park District planner Perry Berrett said. “But we rely on the EPA guidelines in regards to present day conditions and they have to notify us if conditions change.”

“I’ve seen kids swimming down there,” Charles Schmid said during the meeting. “Should I tell them to get out of the water? Is it safe for the public?”

“These are exactly the kinds of questions that we will be looking into,” said Kauffman.

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Health watch

Concerns and questions regarding public health around the Superfund cleanup site at Bill Point and Pritchard Park can be sent to Richard Kauffman at rkauffman@cdc.gov.

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