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Port beginning feasibility study after 20-year investigation into extent of contamination

DEQ/PORT OF COLUMBIA COUNTY - An aerial shot shows the former Pope and Talbot wood-treating site, where creosote contamination requires a significant cleanup. After 20 years, the Port of Columbia County has completed the remedial investigation into the environmental cleanup of the former wood-treating facility in St. Helens.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality ordered the port and Pope and Talbot to conduct the investigation in 1995. Pope and Talbot operated a wood-treatment plant using creosote. The plant operated from 1912 and 1960, before being sold to the port.

In 1995, following an investigation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, DEQ ordered the remedial probe. The investigation was carried out by Pope and Talbot, but the company declared bankruptcy in 2007, before meeting DEQ's standards. In recent years, DEQ and the port have gone back and forth, building on the investigation.

The EPA investigation 30 years ago "showed significant contamination of the subsurface soils and sediments with polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbon compounds, which are the primary constituents of creosote."

DEQ approved the feasibility study work plan submitted by the port in November.

"What we've been doing for 20 years is called the remedial investigation," Deputy Executive Director Craig Allison said. "The significance of today is that we've finally got the sign-off on the completion of the RI phase and we're stepping into the feasibility study."

"We finally got to a point where we are comfortable moving forward with the cleanup efforts along the shoreline where we have visible creosote sheens in the mud or we have significant wood debris that's a hazard to the environment," explained Kurt Harrington of Cascadia Associates, who carried out the investigation for the port.

The next phase is a feasibility study, which Harrington said would take six months. The feasibility study will examine potential cleanup methods. The cleanup could start later this year.

The cost of the cleanup was a concern for commissioners at a recent port meeting.

The investigation costs have been covered by insurance, but the cleanup itself could exceed the coverage.

"The thing that scared me (is having) just under $2 million in coverage, and I've heard numbers like $14 or 15 million for the cleanup," Commissioner Chris Iverson said.

Creosote is a pesticide used to treat wood for outdoor use, including railroad ties and utility poles. It is not approved for any indoor or residential uses.

Creosote can remain in place as a tar-like mass or dissolve in water. The St. Helens site includes soil, basalt bedrock and wood contaminated with creosote.

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