Dissenter in the campaign vs. creosote

Creosote-treated pilings bad, removal good.

That’s the essence of the city’s position on the

scattered remnants of docks and piers dotting the Bainbridge Island shoreline. An estimated 800 pilings are targeted for removal, along with countless stray logs and other creosote-tainted flotsam washed up on local beaches. Letters have gone out to waterfront owners asking for voluntary removal, and the city will explain its program at a community meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.

The Bainbridge community is well acquainted with creosote, first through industry (and a company town) at Bill Point, and more recently as the Environmental Protection Agency sorts through the mess left over by a century of wood-treating operations there. Long used as a preservative for utility poles and railroad ties, the coal tar derivative is these days a bad word environmentally. You can hardly say “creosote” without saying “cleanup” in the next breath.

What you don’t hear much is that creosote has its defenders. You can find one in the person of Kenn Brooks, a Jefferson County resident, scientist and author of various papers on the relative impacts of pressure-treated wood in marine and upland environments. (Local historian Jerry Elfendahl mentions Mr. Brooks in his commentary on page A5 today.)

Brooks’ studies involved pilings in locations ranging from Vancouver Island’s Sooke Basin, to the old ammunition wharf at Port Townsend (upon which the Marine Science Center sits), to our own Fort Ward. His findings: that concentrations of creosote-related toxins around pilings are far lower than generally thought, and that the pilings themselves are home to thriving communities of starfish, anemones, mussels and other sea life. He has some ideas why. And he offers some interesting perspective on the relative carcinogenic effect of creosote-exposed mussels versus, say, barbecued meat.

To Brooks’ thinking, Puget Sound is threatened as much by poor resource management and over-harvesting of fish and clams – areas under the direct control of the state – as by the remains of old docks that are, by his observations, literally crawling with life. His views seem to swim counter to the conventional wisdom on creosote, but isn’t that what scientific inquiry is about?

Two of Brooks’ papers can be read online at www.creosotecouncil.com, a website sponsored by a wood-treatment industry trade group; before you dismiss his work on that basis alone, know that his studies have been funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Canadian government.

Recently in this space, we suggested that where old shoreline pilings are concerned, there is a deeper community discussion to be had; we need to weigh the merits of removal against the preservation of our historic ruins, of which former ferry landings most certainly qualify.

Creosote may not have many fans these days, but where its hazards are concerned, there are voices of dissent. They ought to be heard, before we march down to the water and rip out our storied past.

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