Did the creosote plant destroy life in Eagle Harbor?

The seven acre parcel of contaminated land that can be seen from the Bainbridge Island ferry goes by several names: Creosote Point, Bill Point, and the Wyckoff/Eagle Harbor Superfund Site. Because of contamination, the point is off limits to the public. However, scientists are able to visit the site and collect data.

Two years ago, a team from the UofW’s Friday Harbor Labs conducted beach surveys to determine long-term impacts of the creosote plant on beach life. They plan to conduct a follow-up survey this year. In a personal note to Albert Greiner, the owner of property adjacent to the superfund site, Dr. Megan Dethier said “we found the beach in front of your house to be rich and healthy, as you suspected.”

Click to view report.

Dr. Dethier included a copy of a report showing her analysis of the data. In her words, “…it is not a formal paper, mostly just a quick summary for my colleagues….”

In it, she described the process for collecting data from several Creosote Point sites and comparing it to two nearby beaches on Blake Island to the south and Jefferson Point to the north.

She observed that, “…looking simply at the species richness per transect at MLLW (with transects arranged overall from south to north)… all beaches look similar except the Pit site, which is strikingly less diverse than all the others.”

The “Creosote Pit” was defined as a limited horizontal area where hydrocarbons were visibly percolating out of the sediment above MLLW, near the northern end of the point.

The conclusions of the report were interesting:

At MLLW, the southern two Creosote Point locations were very “typical” for mixed cobble-sand beaches in central Puget Sound, with biota quite similar to sites to the north and south. At the mid-shore (ca. MLW), the southern locations were richer than expected, perhaps due to the presence of cobbles with the surfaces and stability they provide.

We anticipated seeing an effect of hydrocarbon pollution at the North and Pit transects, especially the latter, because of the continuing clear evidence of contamination there. While the species and abundances were clearly different than those at the locations further from the contamination, these differences could just as readily be explained by substrate/sediment differences as by pollution.

The presence of ampeliscid amphipods at the Pit was especially surprising, given the literature suggesting that amphipods in general, and this family in particular, are pollution sensitive.

If we understand these conclusions correctly, the researchers found the beach in front of the superfund site to be rich and healthy today. If the creosote plant destroyed life in Eagle Harbor, it appears to be back.

However, those of us who are required by agreements with the COBI planning department and the state Dept. of Fish and Wildlife to dump sand and gravel on our beaches every few years as mitigation for alleged harm caused by the installation or maintenance of a bulkhead must wonder why we must do so if rocks provide a better habitat than sand.

4 Responses to “Did the creosote plant destroy life in Eagle Harbor?”

  1. 1 Robert Hershberg May 21, 2012 at 1:02 am

    Be careful in using this kind of report to infer that the creosote contamination is benign with respect to other life forms. It is not and the author did not imply this. For general info, chimney sweeps in England were the first persons to be diagnosed to suffer from the results of chemical carcinogenicity from the dibenzpyrene in CREOSOTE. They had cancer of the scrotum. This gives new meaning to the sign NO SWIMMING.

  2. 2 David Sale May 21, 2012 at 9:40 am

    I would additionally point out that extrapolating from pollution impacts to bulkhead effects is risky at best due to different driving forces and variables. In particular (as the report states), it is the distribution (mix) of sediments that is most important to infaunal abundance, and is thus a misleading statement to say that “rocks are better than sand” without specifying distributions. Finally, one must account for energy and current variables in the distributions as these vary depending on whether the beach is exposed or sheltered.

    • 3 BSHadmin May 21, 2012 at 7:23 pm

      Perhaps you could be more specific. Dr. Dethier only uses the word “distribution” once, and not in the context you suggest.

      In any case, it would be nice if shoreline regulations took into account the fact that some beaches are exposed and others are sheltered. They do not.

  3. 4 Gary Loverich February 2, 2013 at 8:59 am

    I would like to provide a bit of history here. My family has lived on the island and specifically Eagle Harbor since 1903. We have always lived off of seafood from Eagle Harbor. Especially from 1950 to 1960 and at a single low tide we could catch 5 gallons of shrimp off of the piling supporting the creosote dock. We caught smelt and crab in the Hawley Cove and in the harbor across from Docs Restuarant there was yearly tom cod derby (1950’s), with winners catching as many as 135 tom cod in a couple of hours. Presently I have caught smelt while fishing right off of Pritchard park. In recent times during the summer the water of Eagle Harbor turns dark read often for weeks. This never happened in the past and really only started in the late 1980’s and gradually lasting longer until now it may remain in the Harbor of months. If Eagle Harbor is devote of life the creosote plant has probably been only a minor cause of the problem. However, unless you fish Eagle Harbor as I have done it is easy to think it devote of life. For a more complete understanding of Eagle Harbor please read the book “Let it Go Louie.” Without of history of the place cause and effect can often by out of sync and that may be happening with the discussion of the creosote plant—–it is such a good target as the source of a perceived or a real problem.

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