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

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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

 

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As if a wall of chemical gas is enveloping us...

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