St. Maries faces costly cleanup
Cleanup of creosote-soaked soil in St. Maries could cost between $4 million and $67 million, according to an estimate from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Officials in the city of 2,600 worry it could be stuck with a portion of the bill because the company accused of causing the contamination, Cook Cedar, has long been out of business, said Mayor Robert Allen. St. Maries has already spent more than $300,000 on legal fees and preliminary cleanup work since an oily sheen was found floating on the St. Joe River in front of the site in 1998.
“That’s taken a lot of money from the city that could have been used for other things,” Allen said.
The EPA’s proposed cleanup plan for the site is expected to be released in late winter or spring, said Kathy Johnson, EPA project manager. The public will have a chance to comment on the proposal before a final decision is made. The options range from leaving the site alone to a full-scale cleanup, which could cost $67 million, according to the EPA estimate.
“It’s premature to assume that’s going to be what we’ll select,” Johnson said.
Until 1964, log poles were dipped in creosote stored in large vats at the 4-acre site. The same traits that made creosote appealing for preventing rot in logs also makes the chemical a formidable contaminant. Although 200 tons of creosote-soaked soil were removed in 1999, creosote-steeped soil remains and continues to threaten the nearby river, according to EPA documents. An analysis of the risks will be conducted as part of any cleanup plan, but Johnson said it’s safe to say the problem hasn’t gone away.
“We believe that there are chemicals that are moving toward the river,” Johnson said.
Apart from the risk to humans and to drinking water, the pollution could threaten the health of federally protected bull trout, which migrate upstream past the site.
The city currently owns the site. Carney Products Ltd. has leased the land since the 1980s and is also listed as potentially responsible for the cleanup, according to EPA documents. Liability issues continue to be investigated, Johnson said. “EPA always does try to find the people who created the problem.”
Mayor Allen said containment, not a full-scale cleanup, “would probably be plenty good enough of a fix.” There does not appear to be any danger to human health, he said. “Unless you stood right in the site and worked in it eight hours a day. … The people in St. Maries have known for years it was down there. They don’t feel there was any danger to it.”