A three-part series this week first looked at the AmeriTies West tie plant operations. Today’s second installment focuses on what the plant has done address to odor complaints concerning naphthalene. Tomorrow’s story recaps an investigative series by the Cascadia Times that says residents in The Dalles are breathing toxic air.
These days, the stacks of treated railroad ties in the yard at AmeriTies West are packed tightly together, part of an effort to reduce odors from the creosote used to treat the ties.
They used to be spread out more to dry quicker, but in a 2016 agreement with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the tie plant switched to “super stacks,” AmeriTies Manager Jeff Thompson said.
“The purpose behind that is you jam it tight together and minimize the air going through it. Less air, less odors,” he said.
While stacks of untreated ties are in rows that are four feet apart, with two feet between each stack in the row, the treated stacks are almost touching each other.
He said the nearly 50 employees at the plant “understand we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do. We’re members of the community and we’ve got to do what we can to reduce the impact,” he said.
A slew of citizen complaints of nuisance odors and health issues has led to several rounds of air quality monitoring by DEQ. A year-long monitoring session is ongoing. Results so far have found that changes at the plant have halved the level of naphthalene found in air samples. It is a main compound in creosote, and has a distinct odor of mothballs.
Creosote was banned for most uses in 1985 due to skin cancer risk, according to the AP. One of the few remaining uses allowed is as a wood preservative for railroad ties and utility poles.
Thompson recently gave a reporter a tour of the long, narrow 80-acre property on the east end of The Dalles that has housed a railroad tie treatment plant since 1922. When Thompson hired on as assistant manager in 1993, it was run by Kerr-McGee Chemical Corp. He became manager in 2000, and the company became AmeriTies in 2005.
In addition to the “super stacks,” other changes were made to the treatment process itself. The company now leaves the hatches to the five treatment cylinders open as briefly as possible — for about five minutes now instead of up to an hour previously — to reduce emissions.
But the biggest change was to the creosote formula. Previously, the plant used pure creosote. Now, the formula is half creosote, half slurry oil. It can go as low as 30 percent creosote, but AmeriTies’ sole customer, Union Pacific Railroad, specified it wanted the 50-50 formula, Thompson said.
Each year, AmeriTies does a health study of about 25 percent of its workforce – or about 12-13 people. They wear a pump during a shift and it pulls in air to simulate breathing. Results show that pollutants in the air employees are breathing is “an order of magnitude lower” than the maximum allowable exposure levels, Thompson said.
From an employee safety standpoint, “We don’t have a concern for exposure,” he said.
“Our experience with our workforce, we don’t see the symptoms [critics] are claiming. Obviously, if you work here you’re going to have the greatest exposure,” he said.
“I don’t mean to be unsympathetic, I’m not discounting their symptoms or anything. I’ve smelled a lot of odors in my life,” Thompson said. “I’ve never had that adverse effect, the headaches, nausea, but everybody’s different.”
He said the goal of critics is for the tie plant to “go away.”
“I’ve got a healthy workforce,” he said. “We comply with all the regs from OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration].”
He said creosote plants, “as some people have testified at DEQ hearings, don’t cause the health effects they say, and the health report proves that.”
He was referring to a recently released health consultation by a federal agency, which concluded the emissions from the plant – based on air monitoring data from before the creosote level was cut in half — do not post a chronic public health hazard. It did find that the odor itself can trigger negative physical symptoms in people.
Thompson said that outcome was a relief. “We were real pleased with the results of the study. That was a concern. I live here too. I don’t want to be creating a health risk.”
He added, “to be fair, obviously I work here and I’m desensitized to a point [to the odor], but my neighbors aren’t telling me I’m a [jerk] for stinking up the place.”
“We’re a part of the community, we’ve been here a long time,” he said.
He added, “We’re not the only source of naphthalene. There’s so much naphthalene that comes off the freeway.”
Critics of the plant called the federal study a waste of paper, and believe the emissions are toxic. They faulted the study for not looking at dust samples, for example, and not talking to affected people. Tomorrow’s story recaps a three-part investigative series done in May on AmeriTies that turns a critical eye to the federal health study.
Thompson said, “Nobody likes to be the center of a news article. We’ve tried to react. We’ve worked with DEQ.”
Long before the nuisance odor complaints started ramping up, AmeriTies “tried to be proactive and reduce our footprint in the community and still stay in business.”
The plant has been the subject of several news stories as state air quality monitoring data results are released and citizens have made critical comments about the plant at public hearings.
He said of the public focus, “none of the employees like it.”
“We’re concerned that some elements of the community feel this way,” Thompson said. “We don’t want to be bad neighbors.”
He feels that as far as pollution control equipment goes, “We’ve got so much more than anybody.”
He added, “We’re not to the point where we are done, but we’re trying to do the things we think will reduce the most emissions over the sources and produce the greatest effect.”