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Pritchard beach to see capping, longer closure

A sign at Pritchard Park on Eagle Harbor’s south shore warns of contaminants recently discovered on the park’s tidelands. Parts of the park were reopened Thursday. - Julie Busch photo
A sign at Pritchard Park on Eagle Harbor’s south shore warns of contaminants recently discovered on the park’s tidelands. Parts of the park were reopened Thursday.
— image credit: Julie Busch photo

Work may keep the public away for six months, starting this fall.

The majority of Pritchard Park’s beach was reopened Thursday, but a 150-foot stretch of contaminated tideland will likely remain closed until next spring.

“We need to analyze the data we collected, but it’s most likely we’ll put a cap on the area (with) construction done by April of next year,” said U.S. Environmental Protection Agency project manager Joe Wallace.

The EPA closed much of the park’s beach in mid-April after a resident noticed the smell and sheen of the wood preservative creosote.

A series of tests slated for over five months concluded this week – about two weeks earlier than expected.

While results from samples taken along the beach will likely emerge in two months, EPA officials have concluded that low levels of exposed creosote have contaminated a portion of the park’s shore along the south side of Eagle Harbor. This 150-by-50-foot area is presently roped off to prevent exposure to park users and their pets.

“Creosote is a toxin, but not a threat to humans unless they eat the sand or go rolling in it,” said Wallace, stressing that there is very little risk for beach walkers, kayakers or swimmers.

The greater threat is posed to marine wildlife, he said, including surf smelt and sand lance that lay eggs in the area.

The EPA may close much of the park’s beach again in October to cap contaminated areas and test other portions. This process could close much of the beach for up to six months.

A 50-acre area composing the waterfront from Bill Point to Eagle Harbor Marina was heavily contaminated after nearly a century of use as a creosote treatment facility.

Owned by Wyckoff/Pacific Sound Resources, the facility coated and shipped various industrial wood products, including telephone poles and railroad ties used in the construction of the Panama Canal.

Leftover creosote was typically dumped at the treatment site, where it seeped into the ground or oozed into the harbor.

EPA officials estimate over 1 million gallons of creosote and other chemicals remain in the area’s soil and groundwater.

The Wyckoff company ended operations in 1988 and transferred the property to the EPA for management under the federal Superfund program, which tackles the nation’s most problematic hazardous waste sites.

The Wyckoff property’s western half was cleaned and capped in the 1990s. The 25-acre parcel was then purchased for use as a park last year with public and private funds.

Sallie Maron, who co-chaired the Friends of Pritchard Park fund-raising group, said she understood the park was not “a pristine site,” but expressed some concern that creosote continues to pose risks to the environment.

“I was surprised,” she said. “I didn’t expect it on the beach area. I was a little disappointed.”

Maron commended the EPA on its ongoing monitoring of the park and urged residents to continue visiting the park’s sandy shores and forested uplands.

“I hope this doesn’t become a huge fear factor,” she said.

“It’s important that this doesn’t become overblown because of all the work that’s been done to make (the park) such a wonderful place to spend time.”

Wallace believes the exposed creosote may have collected over time behind a former bulkhead used by the Wyckoff company.

“It’s a theory right now, but I think materials were dumped behind a bulkhead that had been there since 1913,” Wallace said. “We also have anecdotal reports that a creosote pipeline leaked over time in that area.”

In 2000, the EPA removed the bulkhead and poured a layer of pebbles – but never capped the area with materials the agency typically uses to contain contaminants.

Wallace also believes parts of the sawed-off pilings remain underground.

“There’s some evidence that some of the pilings are leaching out a bit of creosote,” he said. “You can find pieces of the pilings in the area. They’re very small – maybe a quarter of an inch – but if you pick them up, you can smell the creosote and, if you put them in water, you’ll see the sheen come off.”

Strong waves from storms and human activities may have eroded portions of this area, causing further exposure of embedded creosote, according to Wallace.

Tidal currents and wave actions continue to shift other portions of the park’s cap, according to City Councilman Jim Llewellyn.

“At least a thousand feet of the cap has moved westward toward the marina,” he said. “A dock there no longer floats at low tide now that (the cap has) moved and filled in parts of the marina.”

Llewellyn said he was alerted to the cap’s westward movement by Eagle Harbor Marina’s owner, Darrell McNabb, who matched samples of the sediments used for the cap with sediments that have drifted onto his tidelands.

McNabb could not be reached for comment, but EPA officials dispute the claim.

“We’ve heard (McNabb’s) concerns but, based on our monitoring, the cap does appear to be stable,” said Mary Jane Nearman, who manages the former Wyckoff property for the EPA.

Nearman also expressed assurances that groundwater contamination under Bill Point, where the EPA continues an extensive cleaning process, remains contained by metal walls sunk between 30 and 100 feet underground.

A dense geological layer prevents the creosote from seeping under the walls, while a treatment facility cleans the groundwater 24 hours a day. The EPA plans to initiate a $5 million upgrade of its water treatment equipment within the next few months.

While the EPA has not yet prescribed a course of action to alleviate contamination at Pritchard Park, Wallace said the tidal area likely will receive a fresh cap.

The capping project, which could take six months to complete, could cost the EPA upwards of $2 million to install a sloped mound layered with sand, rock and a clay liner to help absorb contaminants.

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Source of concern

Creosote was a common wood preservative manufactured through the high-temperature distillation of coal tar. More than 100 other components were typically added, including fungicide, insecticide, miticide and sporicide to help protect railroad ties, utility poles, pilings and other industrial wood products.

Creosote compounds have been regarded as known carcinogens since the late 1970s. High levels of creosote exposure, or extended exposure over time, can cause skin, kidney and liver problems, birth defects, convulsions, unconsciousness and even death, according to the U.S. Department of Health.

People are most often exposed to creosote through contact with freshly treated wood or from contaminated drinking water.

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