Lawsuits against J.H. Baxter advance, but questions hover over company’s fiscal status and assets
Recently, two cases filed against the J.H. Baxter company were certified as class action lawsuits by U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken. But while this means these cases can move ahead towards a jury trial, the capacity of Baxter to pay damages is uncertain.
The suits collectively represent thousands of clients from the West Eugene area around Baxter’s former wood treatment facility on Roosevelt Boulevard, whose health or properties were allegedly affected by its operations.
The Eugene facility operated for 80 years, treating everything from railroad ties to telephone poles to beams used for amusement park rides.
Over the years, particularly the last two decades, complaints of noxious odors and lingering concerns over health effects steadily intensified. Federal, state, and county agencies have all had environmental issues with the Baxter facility, and levied penalties including fines against it. This includes more than $10,000 from the Lane Regional Air Protection Agency (LRAPA) alone in the past decade.
After testing by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality in 2021 showed elevated levels of dioxins in the yards and gardens of neighboring residences - along with more found months later in Bethel’s Trainsong Park - Baxter executives shuttered the Eugene facility permanently in January 2022.
In a statement, the company said “market volatility” and “diminished margins” were behind the decision.
Since then, J.H. Baxter has remained in the headlines. After agreeing to drop an appeal to DEQ fines amounting to more than $305,000, Baxter evaded a hearing last summer and ducked paying its penalty (as of May 1, DEQ says the fines with interest now total $327,356.00 and are 291 days overdue).
A total of 64 homes surrounding the Eugene site have had their soil sampled and analyzed for dioxin levels, with plans to truck the most contaminated soil away from seven residences, as elevated levels pose a threat to young children.
And in April, the Oregon Health Authority issued a health consultation on J.H. Baxter’s operations and potential health risks for area residents, with a public comment period opened through June 2, 2023.
“They were not just negligent but I think they were intentionally impacting the environment and the well-being of people in the community,” said Chris Nidel, an attorney with the case, Bell-Alanis v. J.H. Baxter & Co, which was filed May 7, 2021.
Nidel says his clients have suffered through the company’s “intentional releases of hazardous and noxious waste into the environment there.”
He said further concerns lie ahead, even if the jury gives him a legal victory.
“We don’t know the full economic status of Baxter and Baxter’s shareholders and where that money has gone,” he told KLCC. “I’m afraid that the community is going to be left holding the bag for the impacts from Baxter.”
Besides Eugene, J.H. Baxter’s presence was seen in other areas of the Pacific Northwest, including Alameda, Weed, and San Mateo, California; and through its associated brand, TimberWood Products/TimberWood Lighting in Brookline, New Hampshire.
Records obtained by KLCC show that after closing its Eugene plant in early 2022, Baxter paid just over $350,000 in payroll expenses through that summer. The roster of eight Eugene employees included company president Georgia Baxter, whose office has usually been listed in San Mateo.
S. Ward Greene, a lawyer for J.H. Baxter, said in the obtained correspondence that the last Baxter employee would be terminated in September of 2022.
“The company has no realistic prospects of returning any dividends/payments to any unsecured creditors. There will be no payments made on account of any ‘equity,’” the correspondence reads.
Greene also acknowledged in an email to KLCC that the Baxter property in Eugene remains unsold, which he blamed on the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s liens on the property, and remediation costs for the site.
Questions emailed to Greene and Georgia Baxter regarding the company’s current status, workforce, active locations, and assets have gone unanswered.
Meanwhile, efforts to call other listed Baxter/Timberwood offices have resulted in automated messages saying the call can’t be completed, while clicking on the URL for TimberWood (woodlightpoles.com) takes users to an online gaming site. A listed sales representative for TimberWood returned KLCC’s call to say that both J.H. Baxter and TimberWood are defunct.
To date, no evidence of any bankruptcy filings or similar declarations have been publicly made by J.H. Baxter. Nidel suggested it could simply be an instance where a company ran its profits dry ahead of the legal ramifications of its actions.
“This is a great example of why we need better oversight from regulatory agencies,” said Nidel. “And we need better assurances from companies that they have the liquidity and they have the capability to pay for damages on the sale that Baxter has caused by apparently running an undercapitalized and underfunded operation that could go from running full business and polluting neighborhoods, to not having enough money to clean up their mess.”
Attorneys with the other class-action lawsuit, Miles Hart v. J.H. Baxter & Co, (filed May 30, 2021) did not return requests for comment for this story.