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)

Dorris Ranch Orchard: New Season, New Start

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Dorris Ranch is a popular public park in Springfield and one of my favorite places to walk trails through a historic orchard and along the Willamette River. Although I have seen people picking blackberries and foraging for other edible plants and fungi in the forest near the orchard, I have never given much thought to pesticides that might be used there. I have always felt that the public should not have to be concerned about chemical hazards in public places with open access.

Last summer, I noticed that a community member was posting concerns about heavy pesticide use in the orchard on social media. This person also called on the Willamalane Parks District to stop all pesticide use. They reached out to Beyond Toxics and we began communicating with Willamalane Parks and Recreation District managers about the pesticides used at Dorris Ranch and concerns from the public.

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The orchard gets a pesticide (Asana XL) application from an air blaster. (Aug. 2021) Photo courtesy of the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

Lisa Arkin, Beyond Toxics Executive Director and I met with the concerned community member who raised the issue. They lived in the Springfield neighborhood between the Dorris Ranch orchard and the Willamette River. The neighborhood is beautiful. A few dozen homes have backyards along the property line of the Dorris Ranch hazelnut orchard, divided only by a flimsy chain link fence.

We walked through the neighborhood and chatted with a few residents the evening before the scheduled spray. A few people were aware there was going to be work done in the orchard but were unaware of any details. Considering the proximity of the orchard to the homes during the spray, with only a barrier of a chain link fence, it was apparent that it would be nearly impossible for them to avoid pesticide residue reaching the homes. 

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Lisa's dog, Rafa, runs in the orchard with one of his companions. Photo by Lisa Arkin

My experience taught me that such pesticide use, along with the inevitable spray drift and the proximity to the neighboring properties represented a significant risk for exposure. We got permission from local residents to set out pesticides drift sample trays in their yards before the spray. 

ODA Arrives for Oversight

An Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) investigator was present to observe the orchardist pesticide application on August 3rd and 4th, which was the last pesticide application for the year. For those days the orchardist used an insecticide called Asana XL to treat moths whose larvae can bore into hazelnuts and destroy the nut. 

The ODA investigator took lots of photos to document the spray and noted the temperature throughout the day, as pesticides can often volatilize at higher temperatures. The Willamette Valley was under an extreme heat wave during this time.  

The investigator noted open windows at homes next to the orchard with fans blowing air inside during the spray. The ODA investigator documented barely legible notes by the orchardist that served as two years of pesticide application records at the orchard.  

After The Spray

The next day we collected our sample trays and plant leaf samples from the backyards after the spray happened and sent them to a lab to test for pesticides. When we received the results from the lab, we were not surprised to see low levels of pesticide residue detected on one of the samples. We sent the lab results to ODA to show that pesticide drift had reached the homes outside the orchard. The ODA returned to collect their own vegetation samples from the yard at the same residence where we found drift and also inside the orchard. The resident had since removed the squash plant where we took our samples and the samples collected by the ODA nearly a month later did not detect pesticide residue at the residence. However, high levels of pesticide residue were still present on the orchard trees. This pesticide is labeled to cause skin irritation and there is ZERO tolerance for residue on food and it should not be accessible in a public park. 

Willamalane Responds

In September, a month after the last spray, Willamalane reached out to Beyond Toxics and interested community members and invited us to participate in an Ad Hoc Advisory Committee to make recommendations to the Willamalane Board of Directors about changes in orchard management practices. Committee members included a representative from the National Parks Service, who advised the committee about the historic values of the Dorris Ranch Park and orchard and cultural landscape. A horticulture expert from OSU provided options on Integrated Pest Managament (IPM) practices including pest trapping and monitoring, and less toxic pesticides for each pest throughout the growing season. An organic hazelnut farmer provided a presentation about organic management of hazelnuts through harvest, processing and marketing. Beyond Toxics advocated for better signage and public notice to neighbors and park visitors, better recordkeeping, and most importantly, we focused on developing a community value of non-toxic public spaces.

On December 1, 2021 the AdHoc Committee recommended that the District transition the Dorris Ranch hazelnut orchard to organic management. The Willamalane Board of Directors voted on December 8, 2021 to immediately discontinue using the most hazardous pesticides used in the orchard in favor of less toxic products. They also requested Willamalane staff to obtain further information about the cost of transitioning to organic.   

 

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Jennifer Eisele, Pesticide Program Manager, visiting Dorris Ranch Orchard. Photo by Emily Cook.

 
A New Season, a New Start

As spring approaches, I’ve returned to the trails at Dorris Ranch. I feel so heartened to see the beginning of new life in the orchard. Nineteen acres of blight-infected trees have now been removed and replaced with a variety of blight-resistant baby hazelnut trees. The most immediate benefit  will be to reduce the amount of pesticides used at the orchard. I’m looking forward to seeing the other changes still to come. My sincere hope is that, with the involvement of citizen power, Beyond Toxics can help make Dorris Ranch a safer public space for visitors and neighbors, pets and wildlife.

~ Jennifer Eisele, Pesticide Program Manager

 

Find out more about the panel that will dive into the issue more deeply at the 40th Annual Public Interest Environmental Law Conference: "Water, Pollinators & Public Spaces: A Local Model for Collaborative Pesticide Policy Reform" on Friday, March 4th, from 1:30-2:30 pm.

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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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First Foods for Spring

Food is our medicine. Foods not only provide nourishment for our body, they also nourish us emotionally and spiritually. Whether it be root foraging, harvesting wild fruits and nuts, procuring plant fibers for basket weaving, fishing, hunting, or gardening, these practices bond our spirit with the earth and make us feel whole. These practices also keep us connected as families by continuing traditions imperative for our health, livelihoods, and cultural survival.

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Free to breathe and thrive

I am passionate about the Earth just as I am passionate for humanity. In my eyes and the eyes of many walking alongside me, there is no difference. My vision is for all Oregonians to live in a thriving landscape wherein we may drink pure, clean water and breathe clear air and be nourished from living soils. I speak out for an Oregon that respects our environment in order to respect the health of our own human community.

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