Environmental agency exploring if shuttered Eugene wood treatment facility could become a Superfund site – Oregon Public Broadcasting

The J.H. Baxter wood treatment plant in Eugene's Bethel neighborhood. It closed in late January 2022. In its final years, locals complained of nightly odors and the DEQ leveled more than $305,000 fines against it for environmental violations.
Brian Bull / KLCC
Regional Environmental Protection Agency officials say they’re working to get the old J.H. Baxter wood treatment plant in Eugene, Oregon, possibly approved for extensive cleanup on the federal government’s tab.
Since closing in January 2022, concerns have persisted over the plant’s environmental safety and effects on surrounding residences.
Bill Dunbar is a public affairs specialist with EPA Region 10, based in Seattle. He told KLCC that they’re nearing a new phase.
“We have sent a letter to (Oregon) Governor Kotek suggesting that we believe the (Baxter) site is eligible for Superfund listing, and we’ve asked for her concurrence by the end of June,” he said.
A Superfund listing could channel millions of dollars of federal money into cleaning up contaminated soil and water at the J.H. Baxter site. Dunbar said it could be listed by March 2025.
In the meantime, Dunbar said the EPA and Oregon Department of Environmental Quality have been working together on soil analysis, and another project will be to determine how to dismantle the Baxter site’s infrastructure.
“So that means the big tanks, what’s in those tanks? What can be done with it? How can it disposed of?” said Dunbar. “What about all the piping? And the remaining chemicals will also need to be removed, so we’ve been assessing that.”
Related: Environmental organization sees a sunny side to Eugene plant’s future
The EPA’s current timeline suggests that work will begin at some point this summer. Dunbar said it could take up to three years for removal of old tanks, pipes, and other components.
And yet another process tied to a Superfund listing will be assessing the contamination’s spread in groundwater and surface water, and how best to access it and remove it.
“Once we figure that out, once we have a remedial investigation, a feasibility study done, then our team will go in with very sharp pencils and come up with a proposed plan for cleanup,” he added.
Dunbar said it’ll be a public process that’ll involve a comment period, and possible revisions.
“And then come up with a cleanup plan called a Record of Decision,” he said. “This is years down the road, so nothing is happening at light speed, it’s happening at the speed of government.”
Related: EPA official says cleanup of J.H. Baxter site in Eugene will be a multimillion-dollar task
Dunbar said he’s grateful to Eugene residents who’ve attended briefings by the EPA, DEQ, LRAPA, and city officials and shared their concerns. He also credits groups like Beyond Toxics for being invested in the outcome with the old wood treatment facility that’s spurred complaints and probes for years.
Just across from the Baxter site in the Bethel neighborhood, Jon Dougherty and his wife, Skye Malito, watch their kids ride bikes and play with hula hoops and a large rubber ball. Their yard had six inches of soil removed earlier this year due to high dioxin levels believed to be from the plant’s emissions.
“This just feels kind of like a stain on Eugene that’s been going on decades,” he said.
From left to right, Jon Dougherty (holding Moo the Cat), his wife Skye Malito, and their children, Luna, Willow, and Lucy, in their yard just a few hundred feet away from the defunct J.H. Baxter wood treatment plant that operated for more than 80 years. Earlier this year, contractors working for the DEQ removed six inches of soil after it was found to contain high levels of dioxins which can be hazardous if ingested over long periods of time.
Brian Bull / KLCC
Dougherty says cleaning up the Baxter site could promote economic development there, and rejuvenate the community. But while he and Malito are happy that the plant could be listed as a Superfund site, they’re still concerned over their health and that of their children given the suspected long-term presence of dioxins across the neighborhood.
“We have small kids, and especially our son, he loves to play in dirt, dig in the mud,” said Malito. “And it was terrifying to know that we could be — just by trying to provide them with a home — we could have exposed them to something like that.”
“Once they come inside, they’ve got to take a bath,” said Dougherty. “And they’ve got to make sure that they’re all cleaned up. It’s hard to convince kids to always do that. It’s difficult.”
In addition to extensive analysis and soil removal from at least seven Bethel homes last fall, 17 trees were also taken down and pulverized as part of DEQ’s cleanup efforts. Officials have also warned locals that eggs may be contaminated if laid by chickens raised in the area.
Two class-action lawsuits have been filed against J.H. Baxter, alleging harm from its emissions and chemical discharges. The company has repeatedly declined comment on the cases.
Tags: Eugene, Pollution, Environmental Protection Agency, Oregon
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