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PUBLIC HEALTH ASSESSMENT

McCORMICK & BAXTER CREOSOTING COMPANY (PORTLAND)
PORTLAND, MULTNOMAH COUNTY, OREGON


SUMMARY

The McCormick and Baxter Creosoting site is located on the Willamette River in Portland,Oregon. The company terminated operations in 1991, and clean-up activities have been initiated.

ATSDR considers the site to have been a public health hazard for former plant workers becauseof past ingestion exposure to arsenic, creosote, pentachlorophenol, polychlorinateddibenzodioxins, and dibenzofurans at levels of public health concern. Past estimated exposuredoses indicate a low to moderate increased cancer risk. Additional exposure via inhalation orskin contact could increase the health risk. The site also poses an ongoing and future publichealth hazard because people might encounter hazardous chemicals along the shoreline on ornear the site at levels that can damage the skin, as was reported to have happened to two boys. Finally, dioxin levels would pose a public health hazard if people subsist on crayfish and suckerscontaminated with polychlorinated dibenzodioxins and dibenzofurans.

The site poses an indeterminate public health hazard for nearby residents because of past,present, and future inhalation exposure. Insufficient information regarding air contaminantlevels makes accurate evaluation of inhalation exposure impossible. Some of the informationneeded for evaluation of exposure, especially past exposures, might never be acquired. Community members reported odors and lung effects, including bronchitis, breathing difficulties,lung tissue damage, lung spots, and lung cancer. These self-reported symptoms have not beenconfirmed by ATSDR. The source or sources of air contaminants causing odors that continue tobe reported by community members has not been determined. The adverse lung symptoms arenon-specific symptoms known to be experienced by people with no known exposure tohazardous waste, but they are also consistent with exposure to site-related contaminants.

In addition to odors and lung effects, community members have expressed concerns aboutcancer, the safety of produce from Sauvies Island, and skin burns from wading in the river.

Additional soil sampling on adjacent industrial properties and ambient air monitoring inodor-affected residential areas have been recommended. Air monitoring on site during certainremedial activities also has been recommended. In addition, the site should not be developed orotherwise accessed by the public until remediation measures are accomplished in a manner thateffectively prevents human exposures from occurring at levels of public health concern. Community and health professions education has been recommended.

BACKGROUND

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), located in Atlanta, Georgia, isa federal agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. ATSDR, under theComprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA),conducts public health assessments for sites the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)proposes for its National Priorities List (NPL). In June 1993, The EPA announced its proposal toinclude the McCormick & Baxter Creosoting Company (MB) site on the NPL. Therefore,ATSDR has, under its mandate, evaluated the public health significance of this site byconsidering whether health effects are possible and has recommended actions to mitigatepossible future exposure.

A. Site Description and History

Background

MB treated wood at a site on the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon, downstream of SwanIsland and upstream of the St. Johns Bridge (Figures 1 and 2). The property extends from theriver to the base of a 120-foot high bluff in an area built with dredged materials in the early1900s. MB was founded in 1944 and continued operation until October 1991, after which theowners vacated the premises. Wood treating materials used include creosote/oil mixtures,pentachlorophenol/oil mixtures, and several water-based solutions containing arsenic, chromium,copper, and zinc (1).

The principal facilities included retorts, a tank farm, a creosote tank, hazardous waste storage, aformer waste disposal pond and trench, a dock, and office and laboratory buildings (1).

Waste-related activities reported include the following (1):

  • Between 1945 and 1969, wastewater and cooling water were discharged into the river.
  • The sump at one retort possibly once discharged to the river.
  • Boiler water, storm water, and oily wastes were reportedly directed to a waste disposal trenchin the southeast part of the site prior to 1971. Contaminated soil was removed from this areain the 1980s.
  • Two major chemical or creosote spills reportedly have occurred.
  • Waste oil containing creosote and pentachlorophenol were applied to soils to improve theirstructural stability.
  • Treated wood products were placed in the river at various times prior to shipment. An areacontaining oily sediments was reportedly dredged approximately every 3 years during theVietnam War; the disposal location of those sediments is unknown.
  • Residues from retorts, an oil/water separator, and evaporators were disposed of in the formerwaste disposal area.
  • Contaminated soils were removed on more than one occasion while the facility was in operation.

Releases of contaminants into the environment were first reported to the Oregon Department ofEnvironmental Quality (ODEQ) in 1983. MB conducted preliminary investigations and hadpartially completed intitial remedial measures when they vacated the property in October 1991. ODEQ initiated a remedial investigation that began in 1990 and was completed in September1992. Studies have shown that surface and subsurface soils, groundwater, and river sedimentshave been contaminated. Some chemicals have moved far below the surface and toward theWillamette River. In some areas, pools of creosote have accumulated at or below the water table(1).

Recent Remediation and Remediation Plans

ODEQ began in December 1991 to prevent releases of chemicals remaining at the site, tomaintain site security, and to reduce storm water discharges. In December 1992, ODEQ began toimplement interim clean-up measures that include pumping creosote and other oily wastes fromextraction wells and installing cutoff trenches designed to capture pollutants seeping towards theriver. The site perimeter fences have been extended into the tidal zone of the river to limit accessto off-site sediment seeps exposed at low tide. Fences now surround essentially all the propertyexcept for a segment along the river. A system of buoys has been placed along the waterfront. Warning signs have been placed on the site perimeter (1,2).

A broader clean-up plan being proposed is summarized as follows (3):

  • Remove pooled chemicals from the ground to the extent possible.
  • Consider pumping groundwater as a future option.
  • Monitor groundwater quality.
  • Remove site structures.
  • Selectively excavate highly contaminated surface soils; selectively stabilize contaminated soilareas; and place a 3- to 5-foot cover of clean fill material over all site soils.
  • Take no action for off-site soils.
  • Remove any potentially mobile chemicals present in sediments.
  • Cover contaminated sediments in place.
  • Consider developing technologies such as in situ biological treatment as possible methods forreducing subsurface contaminant concentrations.
  • Monitor the effectiveness of the remedial measures and, if warranted, initiate additionalmeasures.

B. Site Visit

Three ATSDR representatives--Stephanie Prausnitz, Don Gibeaut, and Greg Thomas--andrepresentatives of ODEQ, EPA, and the Oregon Department of Human Resources, HealthDivision, visited the site on February 23, 1994. Public availability sessions also were held onthat day. Pertinent information obtained during that visit is described in appropriate sections ofthis document.

C. Demographics, Land Use, and Natural Resource Use

Land Use

Flat, low-lying segments of land on both sides of the Willamette River in the City of Portlandhave been developed extensively for light to heavy industry. The industrial propertyimmediately northwest of the site, now vacant, once was used for shipbuilding andmanufacturing wooden casks or tubs (1). ATSDR representatives observed industrial propertyimmediately to the southeast being used to manufacture Portland cement products and to storeprivately owned chemical emergency and remedial response vehicles and associated equipment. That property is known to have been used previously as a barge maintenance and dredgingfacility (1). ATSDR reviewed old photographs that show substantial, but unidentifiable, activitythere. A chemical company and petroleum refinery are on the waterfront across the river fromthe site (1).

ATSDR representatives also observed that the northeast side of the site is bordered by a 120-foothigh bluff, which generally parallels the river. The area on and beyond the bluff is principallyresidential. The University of Portland, also on the bluff, is about 2,000 feet southeast of the site.

Demographics

The 1990 census (4,5) provides information about population density and populationcharacteristics in the site area:

Density
Within ½ mile--approximately 1,100
Within 1 mile--approximately 7,900
Within 2 miles--approximately 28,000
Characteristics--Within ½ Mile
White--92.2%
Black--1.9%
American Indian, Eskimo, and Aleut--1.4%
Asian and Pacific Islander--3.9%
Hispanic--3.4%
Under 18 years old--16.6%

ODEQ advised ATSDR that about 45 persons were employed on site during the final years ofoperation.

Natural Resource Use

Groundwater and Surface Water

The city water department advised ATSDR that every residence, business, and industry in thearea is connected to the public water system. The source of public water is primarily surfacewater obtained farther inland from water bodies that could not be affected by the site. Thatsource is supplemented, when needed, by wells located more than 10 miles from the property.

Site studies indicate that there is substantive evidence that groundwater flow direction in the sitearea is toward the Willamette River (1). Hence, any wells on the bluff to the northeast, would beupgradient from the site and should not be affected by site releases. ATSDR representatives alsoreviewed records from the U.S. Geological Survey and the Oregon Water Resources Departmentfor evidence of wells in the site vicinity (6). Those records showed that a few wells wereinstalled years ago at locations as near as approximately one-half mile from the property, but thelocations are hydraulically upgradient from the site.

ATSDR representatives observed that the Willamette river is used extensively for shipping. Theriver flows generally northward past the site and discharges into the Columbia River severalmiles from the property. ODEQ advised ATSDR that the Willamette River is not used as apublic water supply source between the site and the Columbia River. Several towns,communities, and businesses downstream on the Columbia River either withdraw public waterdirectly from the river or use groundwater withdrawn at locations beside or beneath the river thatmight be affected by river water quality.

River Biota

Studies show that salmon, steelhead trout, and other game fish and crayfish are abundant in theriver near the site (1).

D. Health Outcome Data

The State of Oregon maintains vital statistics (i.e., information about births and deaths). Thatinformation is collected at the county level. Oregon has neither a cancer nor a birth defectsregistry. No health studies on the workers at or the residents around the site were found.

COMMUNITY HEALTH CONCERNS

Several community members attended the ATSDR-sponsored public availability meeting, whichwas held in Portland on February 23, 1994. At that meeting, community members raisedconcerns about chemical odors in the air, both currently and in the past. One individualcharacterized the past odors as creosote-like. Another individual described waking up at nightunable to breathe because of the "dark brown" smell coming from the site. Concern wasexpressed regarding cancer. A nonsmoker questioned whether contamination from the sitecaused the spots found on his lungs during an X-ray examination. One person who has lived inthe area her entire life questioned whether there was a relationship between site-related exposureand her chronic bronchitis and lung tissue damage. Concern was also expressed about the safetyof produce--including berries, peaches, cucumbers, and cabbage--harvested from a farm onSauvies Island, located approximately one and one-half miles downstream from the site. Finally,community members told of two boys wading at the shore at the site's edge; they waded intocontaminated sediments and sustained chemical burns to their legs. Health officials also reportedthis event to ATSDR during the site visit.

The concerns reported here are addressed in the Community Health Concerns Evaluation sectionof this public health assessment.

The McCormick and Baxter public health assessment was available for public review andcomment in the local library and local neighborhood association office for a 60-day periodending April 10, 1995. The public comment period was announced in local newspapers. Inaddition, the public health assessment was sent to one individual. Several sets of commmentswere received. Specific comments and responses are summarized in Appendix C.

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