Pollute, Dispute and Scoot!

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Aerial view of JH Baxter creosote factory in West Eugene.

When J.H. Baxter shut down in January 2022, the community heralded a new era of cleaner air and more livable neighborhoods. This creosote chemical company polluted both nearby communities and its own workers for seven decades. The day after the plant ceased operations, nearby neighbors could suddenly take in a breath of air without coughing, getting a headache or feeling nauseous.

Dishonorably, like the black tar stain of creosote, J.H. Baxter continues to leave its sticky, foul mark on its Bethel neighbors. Shielding itself from the consequences of intentional toxic chemical trespass is the company’s signature legacy.

 

J.H. Baxter takes advantage of our community in three major ways

 
POLLUTE
First, J.H. Baxter for years exposed residents to air polluted with a sinister cocktail of naphthalene, ammonia, methanol, acetaldehyde, and a much longer list of nasty chemicals. At the same time its Bethel factory contaminated groundwater with pentachlorophenol (a carcinogen) and soil with dioxin (a carcinogen). Both provoked above-average health problems that afflict many long-suffering residents. 

DISPUTE
Secondly, J.H. Baxter violated environmental protection laws in full view of our federal and state agencies. Regulators knew that the company was a repeat, intentional polluter and declared it a Significant Non-Complier as far back as 2012. Sadly, nothing changed. As environmental violations mounted and grew in severity, J.H. Baxter employed the corporate tactic of dispute-and-delay to dissuade agencies from holding it to account and issuing appropriate civil penalties. The company is responsible for at least one Superfund site in California and hazardous chemicals spills in the Columbia River.  Like a white-collar crime thriller on the big screen, this corporate tycoon took advantage of its wealth and political ties to silence workers and manipulate the system. These deceits enabled J.H. Baxter to emerge unscathed, time after time.

SCOOT
Finally, when cornered by indisputable revelations of dioxin in the soil of nearby neighborhoods, J.H. Baxter forced regulatory agencies to go to court, buying time and spending  taxpayer dollars. J.H. Baxter employed this tactic again when it was fined $305,440 for egregious violations of hazardous waste and water quality laws from 2015 to this year. It used the courts to dispute evidence of violations and to protest civil fines. Beyond Toxics became a legal petitioner to represent community interests and make sure pollution victims’ experiences were considered. After dragging out the litigation for nearly a year, on July 14, J.H. Baxter signed a settlement agreement to pay the full $305,440 immediately. The agreement was used to resolve the enforcement actions by the DEQ. 

Here’s where J.H. Baxter performs the evasive “scoot” maneuver, continuing its historical pattern of violating the community’s trust, signing documents in bad faith and skirting Oregon laws: The company refuses to pay their $305,440 debt, and appears have no intention of paying the fine even though they signed the settlement agreement. 

Further, the company refuses to make any effort to pay for the dioxin cleanup of residential yards in Bethel neighborhoods that are now contaminated from years of negligent environmental violations. 

PROFITS, LIKE ITS POLLUTION, UP IN THE AIR
Although the company has not declared bankruptcy, Company CEO Georgia Baxter claims that years of corporate profits simply vanished. Thankfully, the Oregon Department of Justice and the Oregon DEQ are scrupulously investigating how the State can recoup the money owed in civil penalties and the millions of dollars being spent on cleaning up the dioxin mess, both on the polluter’s property and in the yards of nearby Bethel residents.

However, DEQ’s options are murky under Oregon law. For example, the agency has been unable to recover even a penny from all the equipment and chemicals J.H. Baxter has sold off since it closed.

 

J. H. Baxter has figured out it can pollute, dispute and scoot – with impunity.

WE CAN LEARN FROM THIS
Eugene should not allow a similar toxic fiasco to happen again! Now is the time to stand up and demand polluter accountability. Beyond Toxics is working with City Councilors Claire Syrett and Randy Groves to design policies with the teeth to protect our communities. We residents of Eugene must mandate strong requirements to end chronic polluter malfeasance. Our legislature must give our regulatory agencies more tools to rein in chronic polluters.

Help us pass meaningful policies that build public health criteria in our zoning codes. Contact us to find out more about upcoming hearings on the Public Health Overlay Zone. Read our J.H. Baxter FAQ sheet. Your City Councilor needs to hear directly from you that Eugene must adopt solutions that will get our community on a clear path to end the dodgy cycle of pollute, dispute and scoot.
 

~ Lisa Arkin, Executive Director


Read Register-Guard's most recent reporting on the J.H. Baxter issue (PDF if you're not subscribed)

Ask city for change to prevent more Baxter-like pollution issues now facing west Eugene

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(this article was originally published as an opinion editorial in the May 15th edition of the Eugene Register-Guard)

 

For over 50 years, J.H. Baxter operated a wood treatment facility in West Eugene where wood products are infused with potent oil-based pesticides and chemical treatments. In recent months, J.H. Baxter, facing large civil penalties and an expensive environmental clean-up, announced that they would “mothball” their facility. The owners claimed they were faced with “market volatility” and “diminished returns” and concluded that “it simply doesn’t make financial sense to continue current operations at [their] Eugene facility.” Apparently, JH Baxter’s choice of operational methods, which never made moral or legal sense, is no longer financially sensible.

Celebrations from environmental justice advocates and neighborhood residents are justified. However, the decades of pollution violations, unpaid civil penalties, and unaddressed contamination caused by poorly regulated wastewater and harmful toxic air emissions mean that closed doors may be as much an act of evasion as an act of surrender.

Environmental sampling in the wake of yet another string of investigations has shown there are significant quantities of PCP leaching out from under the facility into surface and ground water and dioxin wafting out and settling in the surrounding neighborhood.

Dioxin, a toxic and persistent organic pollutant (POP) and a component of the biological-chemical weapon ‘Agent Orange’ is now a fixture of West Eugene’s public spaces, a glaring harm to properties, and substantial risk to residents. Per the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): “Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system, and can interfere with hormones.”

A Community Effort for Change

Beyond Toxics and thousands of residents of West Eugene have raised the alarm on J.H. Baxter’s pollution for decades, citing noxious smells, illness, discomfort, and respiratory issues among other adverse health effects, including incidence of rare childhood cancer. J.H. Baxter has been cited with over twenty pollution violations in the last 30 years.

Despite laws and environmental protections codified to protect ‘public health and welfare,’ poison on the playground and pollution off the porch have repeatedly threatened residents of West Eugene. Today, nearly 40 Bethel residents wait to find out if their property is marked unsafe for children, unsafe to grow food, unfit for typical use.

Today’s antiquated laws, as codified, allow our state and federal government to permit harm and, functionally, designate sacrifice zones. And unfortunately, absent an injunction from a court or cease-and-desist order from either the DEQ or from the governor, these violations and cited penalties end nothing—to a company like JH Baxter, it’s just a cost of doing business.

Our communities and our regulatory agencies lack the legal tools necessary to hold chronic polluters like JH Baxter accountable to environmental regulations and fiscal responsibilities. A serious reconsideration of our planning, land use, and environmental protections is long overdue.

Proposed Changes In The Works

Beyond Toxics is proposing a series of impactful changes to Eugene’s local government. Top on our list 1) Restructure Land Use Compatibility Statements (LUCS) (a process involved with granting conditional use permits for development); 2) Codify a Public Health Overlay Zone (a new ordinance layering additional protections related to public health and equity to existing zoning regulations); 3) Create a Risk Bond requirement (a bond the polluter most hold to insure against significant risks of environmental and public harm posed by a new development or land use).

Since the inception of Beyond Toxics, we’ve been dedicated to addressing the root causes of toxic pollution. By working to dismantle entrenched and unfair legal loopholes and “perks” for polluters that allow unabated contamination with no accountability we will go a long way in the fight against these root causes. A vital part of that work includes updating land use laws and strengthening environmental regulations. Accomplishing these goals will provide lasting protections for all communities, in perpetuity.

~ Peter Jensen, Environmental Justice Law and Policy Extern and Lisa Arkin, Executive Director

 


City of Eugene Work Sessions

1) Addressing Chronic Toxic Polluters Work Session: Monday May 23 at 5:30 pm
MORE: https://www.eugene-or.gov/DocumentCenter/View/5448/Tentative-Working-Agenda

TAKE ACTION
Attend the work sessions via video conference

https://www.eugene-or.gov/3360/Webcasts-and-Meeting-Materials

See the "Live Sessions" section on that page to access live webcasts of City Council, Budget Committee or Planning Commission.  The button for meeting that is currently live will be highlighted. Live sessions and recordings of previous meetings can also be accessed via our City of Eugene Public Meetings YouTube channel.

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Public Pressure Brings Down Polluting Giant

On Friday afternoon, I went with two other Beyond Toxics staff members to stand across the street from the JH Baxter wood treatment facility. We took a moment to breathe in a deep breath of air and celebrate the absence of creosote vapors – the nauseating, eye-burning, nose-searing combination of many chemicals including naphthalene and petroleum – that have defined living in the area for decades.

 

 

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JH Baxter’s unrelenting toxic pollution has, since the day it began operating, caused devastating harm to workers, Bethel residents and the surrounding neighborhood. We will continue to stand by the community to do everything to ensure this polluter is held accountable to pay for cleaning up dioxin-contaminated soils, toxic PCB plumes in the groundwater and nearby streams and their own highly contaminated 42-acre site. 

The devastating effects of JH Baxter’s greed and illegal practices will be felt in the community for decades to come. People who once lived there or who still live there will suffer an increased susceptibility to chronic health problems including cancer, asthma, hypertension, and diabetes for the rest of their lives. The toxic legacy left behind will haunt nearby neighborhoods for generations not yet born.

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Bethel neighbor listens to a West Eugene clean air presentation.

The closure of JH Baxter is nothing short of a ground-breaking community victory! For residents of West Eugene, the closure of JH Baxter warrants a well-deserved victory lap. It is a time to celebrate the years of community organizing and public pressure that led to this moment: shuttering a repeated and intentional polluter! 

Beyond Toxics has fought for clean air in the Bethel community since 2006. We’ve been fighting for the principle of holding polluters accountable since our founding in 2001. Our work with West Eugene neighbors began by raising awareness about air and groundwater pollution from the Union Pacific Rail Yard.

We further amplified our work in 2009, when we walked the streets with City Councilor Andrea Ortiz (she later died of complications from a respiratory illness). As we walked together, Councilor Ortiz commented on a persistent chemical stench from nearby industrial facilities, leaking rail cars parked next to homes and parks, and two separate groundwater plumes of vinyl chloride and PCBs. We discussed high rates of cancer, asthma and other illnesses as well. In particular, we talked about the unbearable odors emanating from the JH Baxter plant.

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City Councilor Andrea Ortiz. (deceased; photo taken in 2004)

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During the 2012 West Eugene Bus Tour a Latinx mother tells the crowd of her daughter suffering from asthma as a result of living near JH Baxter.

A year later, a teacher from Fairfield Elementary School called us in a panic as the staff rushed the school children back inside from recess. I will never forget her words: “A wall of chemical vapors is overwhelming us! We can’t breathe!” she said. It was the smell of creosote, and JH Baxter was the source.

This call, and other developments, led us to develop the first ever Environmental Justice Toxics Bus Tour in Oregon in 2012.

 

Over the years we have supported the efforts of Bethel residents to expose JH Baxter’s litany of toxic abuse with a bevy of  grassroots organizing tactics, including health studies, air quality studies, testifying, supporting community coalitions and filing a truckload of complaints. Perhaps most importantly, in 2014 we filed a successful US EPA civil rights and environmental justice complaint against the Lane Regional Air Protection Authority. Without fail, we let regulatory agencies know, in no uncertain terms, that they had failed the community, sacrificed public health and allowed themselves to be subservient to one of Oregon’s worst polluters. 

In fact, a day before the shutdown plans were known, Beyond Toxics and the Active Bethel Community had sent a letter to the Mayor and Eugene City Council calling for our elected officials to ask Governor Brown and the DEQ to issue a Cease and Desist order to force JH Baxter to stop operations.

Despite the quiet outward appearance I witnessed on Friday, we remain vigilant in insisting regulators hold JH Baxter to the task of paying for cleanup of the neighborhood and their own seriously contaminated 42 acre site.

The courts will consider JH Baxter’s case to contest (as in “not pay”) the $223,000 civil penalty issued by the DEQ for violating their pollution permit. Striving to uphold environmental justice principles during this court case, we successfully petitioned regulators to represent the community’s interest in JH Baxter’s upcoming court hearing (Read our petition to participate on the community’s behalf). Beyond Toxics will be there to ensure environmental justice is upheld!

JH Baxter and the history of how elected officials and regulatory agencies ignored the downwind Bethel community is an example of structural injustice and unfair treatment. As the dark, harrowing shadow of JH Baxter’s toxic legacy recedes, we must continue to insist that Bethel neighbors deserve a sense of well-being and hope for a thriving and just future.

~ Lisa Arkin, Executive Director, Beyond Toxics

 

See our latest video on YouTube highlighting Beyond Toxics' work in West Eugene

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A right to clean air

Do you wonder how polluted the air you are breathing is? The fact is, the quality of our local air is a critical factor in our health. Sadly, air pollutants commonly found in Eugene-Springfield’s air are known to cause serious harm to public health.

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