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Eugene's embattled J.H. Baxter plant to shutter Jan. 31

The J.H. Baxter wood treatment facility in Eugene, Oregon.
Brian Bull
The J.H. Baxter wood treatment facility in Eugene, Oregon.

After 80 years of operation, the controversial J.H. Baxter wood treatment facility in Eugene is permanently closing Monday, January 31.

For years, the plant has been cited and fined for environmental violations, with neighbors often complaining of strong chemical odors. Recently, levels of dioxins in nearby residences were high enough to facilitate soil removal.

J.H. Baxter announced its decision through an attorney’s letter to the Lane Regional Air Protection Agency (LRAPA) says spokesman Travis Knudsen.

“The communication that was provided to LRAPA did not elaborate on any reason or cause to their decision,” he said.

Knudsen said they’re awaiting further communications from J.H. Baxter in terms of their closure process and the continuance of their air permit.

“The community has always been very aware of the facility, and has done a great job throughout the years making sure that the regulators are aware of what’s taking place at J.H. Baxter, and advocating for scrutiny of the facility, which we have done.”

Cleanup and monitoring will continue, well after the plant shutters. Dylan Darling is a spokesperson with Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality.

“DEQ will be engaged with Baxter as long as there are environmental issues to address at and near the facility. The department will continue to inspect and investigate as needed to ensure compliance.”

Dylan added that cleanup of contaminated groundwater has been underway at the Baxter plant since the 1990s. More recently, the attention has been on contaminated soil.

In an October 2019 release, the DEQ said, “Spills over the decades have left groundwater and soil contaminated. Pentachlorophenol has contaminated groundwater. In addition, dioxins, furans, arsenic and two components of creosote have contaminated soil. J.H. Baxter took interim measures in the 1990s to address the contamination, including improving operating procedures, installing a groundwater extraction system, removing contaminated soil, and creating an inventory of all pumping wells in the area to ensure no drinking water use. The cleanup plan builds on those measures, making them permanent and fully addressing remaining soil contamination through the installation of a stabilization cover over the ground and a liner in the stormwater pond.”

Overall, the J.H. Baxter plant has been the source of hundreds of complaints from residences, and the focus of reports, citations and fines by the DEQ, LRAPA, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

D.J. Parson is a soil agronomist with Lane Forest Products, and a resident of the Bethel neighborhood which is near the Baxter plant. He’s done independent analysis of the air and water in the area, and is relieved the plant is ceasing operations.

“As humans, we deserve the right to have clean air and I feel like we’ve won that back as long as this continues to move forward,” Parson told KLCC.

“But I think that as a community, we’re still going to need to continue to fight for clean water and clean soil in the vicinity. And my hope is that when they’re no longer in our community, that there is a focus on what they’re leaving behind. And ultimately I think the impetus needs to fall back onto the company that caused this, and not the city or the greater community.”

Parson added that lingering concerns over the regional contamination of soil and air caused him to stop gardening, and that includes produce he’d have shared with relatives.

“It’s nothing I feel comfortable giving out anymore as a gift to my family,” he added.

Among those celebrating the news is the environmental advocacy group, Beyond Toxics.

“While many questions remain about the company's accountability for the damage they have caused in terms of health, property safety, property values and environmental quality, J.H. Baxter's shutdown will mean that West Eugene residents will be spared the noxious and nauseating creosote fumes that neighbors have complained to agencies about for decades,” read a release issued by the group.

“The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality assures the public that the agency will hold J.H. Baxter responsible for the costs of remediating the contaminated soil in residential yards and on the facility’s site.”

The president of J.H. Baxter did not respond to KLCC’s request for comment.

Copyright @2022, KLCC.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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