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Months after its closure, a cloud still hangs over J.H. Baxter's Eugene plant

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Brian Bull
/
KLCC
Kat Anderson and her father, Jim Irwin, in their yard across the now-closed J.H. Baxter wood processing plant. They suspect high dioxin levels in their soil may be behind her kidney failure.

Environmental concerns linger over the J.H. Baxter plant in Eugene’s Bethel neighborhood. After 80 years of operation, the wood treatment facility shut down for good in January, but legal cases and calls for accountability still dog it, and now it faces more penalties from regulatory agencies.

Wearing a blue t-shirt with kittens on the front, 55-year-old Kat Anderson walks around the house she shares with her father on Baxter Street. She began gardening here ten years ago.

“We have my lovely lilac tree, and I have two rose bushes over there…”

The shuttered J.H. Baxter plant is across the street. Kat says in the last two years, she’s suffered kidney failure and suspects emissions from the wood-processing facility may be the cause.

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Brian Bull
/
KLCC
The trucking entrance for the J.H. Baxter wood processing plant in Eugene, off of Roosevelt Blvd.

“Lots of fatigue, unexplained weight loss. Muscle aches. If I eat too much potassium and phosphates I break out in rashes on both arms. And the hard to walk, things like that, keep up with the grandkids.”

Kat’s father, 82-year-old Jim Irwin, said he bought this home for only $145,000 in 2011. In light of his daughter’s health issues, he thinks the realtor, City of Eugene, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, or the J.H. Baxter company itself should have warned him of contaminants from the plant across the way. Generally, complaints had been about odors from wood processing chemicals.

“I kinda like the smell of creosote actually, as long as it’s not too strong,” said Irwin.

The topic of dioxins didn’t really come up until January, when Irwin and other neighbors got a letter from the DEQ. It said the concentration of the chemical compounds in their soil was high enough that contractors would need to remove them from affected properties later this year.

“From what I can understand, they’ll dig up all the topsoil, and replace it, and reseed the yard," said Irwin. "As near as we can tell, we didn’t find out about it until my daughter already had the kidney problems. But then when we started thinking about it, we thought it was probably about the time she started digging in the dirt.”

Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause cancer, according to the EPA. The DEQ says it plans to analyze soil at 30 more homes. After seven residences were found to have elevated levels of dioxins last January, the Baxter plant closed two weeks later.

J.H. Baxter and its president, Georgia Baxter, have not returned requests for comment for this story. But in a letter that KLCC acquired from the DEQ, the company blamed “rising costs” for running the plant, and “dwindling sales margins due to shifts in the market” for the closure. The letter goes on to say that even with the wood processing facility shuttered, Baxter would comply with all regulatory requirements for “stormwater, groundwater, and process water treatment.”

That doesn’t placate the skeptics.

“A lot of this could have been prevented -we believe- by the facility had they cared,” said Lisa Arkin, executive director of Beyond Toxics. The Eugene-based environmental advocacy group has pledged to see that Baxter is held accountable for its cleanup responsibilities, both on their 42-acre site, and the surrounding Bethel neighborhood.

“All this contamination is harming people in many ways, whether it's a personal health or the value of the property, and their livability, their ability to enjoy their lives and to enjoy their neighborhoods.”

In May -through a special records request- KLCC acquired an amended list of violations against Baxter, issued by the DEQ. Adding on to a notice issued in March 2021, the new violations include two overflows of untreated stormwater in the last six months, storing hazardous waste too long without a permit, and failing to minimize releases of hazardous waste.

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

The amended violations raised DEQ’s penalties from $223,000 to $305,040. Baxter is contesting those penalties, and unless there’s a settlement beforehand, a hearing will be held in August.

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Oregon Dept. of Environmental Quality.
Aerial view of the J.H. Baxter wood processing facility in Eugene's Bethel neighborhood.

Beyond Toxics will be participating as a limited party in that hearing. Together with Crag Law in Portland, they will provide a closing argument brief.

“Beyond Toxics in its petition, filed that without our involvement, the affected community -such as west Eugene - will not be adequately involved in these proceedings,” said Crag attorney Rebekah Dawit.

Baxter has said it can’t cover the costs of cleaning up contaminated soil in nearby residences. To date, no federal records show Baxter filing for bankruptcy.

That intrigues Dawit.

“We’re still trying to figure that out ourselves. So, it's unclear but we're also researching.”

Baxter’s also facing two federal, class-action lawsuits in Oregon’s 9th Circuit District Court. One of the suit’s attorneys, Chris Nidel, said his clients are seeking damages from Baxter for nuisance, trespass, and negligence, arguing that the company knowingly and willfully discharged chemical emissions – including heavy metals such as arsenic — into the air.

This included a ten-year period where Baxter allegedly used its retorts -cylindrical chambers normally used to apply chemicals to wood through pressure - to make hazardous waste “disappear” by evaporating it then discharging it into the community.

“That’s not even talking about the impact on these people’s property values, the impact on their quality of life, and ultimately the impact on their health and well-being,” said Nidel. “While my lawsuit is not about cancer, I have certainly spoken to a number of people that have experienced what appears to be rare and unusual cancers connected to things like dioxins, things like semi-volatile chemicals like naphthalene, and the like.”

Like Beyond Toxics, Nidel fears J.H. Baxter will walk away without consequences.

“The sad, sad fact is that Baxter—it appears—will never be forced to and will never be able to pay for the ravaging of this community.”

The DEQ says clean-up operations have been going on at Baxter’s Eugene plant since the 1990s. A look at the EPA’s enforcement and compliance database shows the agency labeled Baxter a “significant non-complier.” Data shows the EPA took 13 enforcement actions against Baxter in the last five years, with penalties nearing $150,000.

Other regulatory agencies include Oregon Health Authority and Lane Regional Air Protection Agency. OHA has done studies on cancer rates in the vicinity of the Baxter facility, which showed the West Eugene neighborhoods had slightly higher rates of lung cancer and Hodgkin’s lymphoma than the state and county rates.

LRAPA has issued its own share of fines in the last decade, resulting in J.H. Baxter paying over $10,000.

Back at her home on Baxter Street, Kat Anderson said she’s being evaluated for a wheelchair, as she’s finding it harder to move on her own. She’s answered a letter from a Detroit law firm seeking plaintiffs in a suit against Baxter, but has yet to hear back. Whether she’ll keep waiting or join one of the class action suits, Kat’s not sure. But her end goals are modest for any legal action against Baxter.

“Transplants or dialysis…y’know, it would be nice if they would help out with that,” she said. “And if they’re going to dig out my garden I’d like to be compensated for all the flowers and stuff I’ve put in. I’m not a greedy person.”

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Note: a version of this story previously appeared in NYU's online journalism site, The Click.

Copyright @2022, KLCC.

Brian Bull joined the KLCC News Team in June 2016. In his 25+ 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 (19 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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