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The Oeser Company - One of America’s Most Contaminated Hazardous Waste Sites

May 2006

Cover Story

The Oeser Company - One of America’s Most Contaminated Hazardous Waste Sites

by Nathan Warren

Nathan Warren is a sophomore and journalism minor at Western Washington University. Ever since reading “The Jungle” in the sixth grade, Nate’s been interested in the political power of words. His previous publishing experience includes The Planet at WWU, the Columbian in Vancouver, Wash. and his high school paper, the Plainsmen Press.

Many Bellingham citizens may not be aware of it, but tucked away in this cheery community is what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deemed “one of the nation’s most contaminated hazardous waste sites.”

Overlooking the northwest corner of Bellingham like an ominous lighthouse, an enormous 225-foot smokestack broadcasts the title “Oeser” in a deep maroon shade. Move closer and freshly treated telephone poles come into view; neatly stacked as if gigantic cigars.

This is the Oeser Company (formerly the Oeser Cedar Company) —a 26-acre wood treatment plant on the outskirts of Marine Drive. In August 2005, Oeser agreed to a complete compensation of $8.6 million for federal cleanup cost. This decision was made eight years after the EPA targeted the Oeser site for its unsafe level of toxins and possible connection to water contamination in Little Squalicum Creek. The facility had been treating cedar since the 1940s, an era where environmental law was far from becoming a perfected science.

“Many wood companies tend to have messy operations, as is historically shown,” said Mary Jane Nearman, Oeser project manager through the EPA. Oeser’s facility is no exception to this statement. The company, which is now more than 75 years old, has had multiple emergency situations throughout its complex history. Chris Sechrist, president of Oeser, was the only designated authority to speak on the company’s behalf and he was unavailable for comment during the writing of this article.

Facility Opened in 1943

Francis L. “Pat” Oeser was the proprietor of the Oeser Company, which opened in 1928 as the Oeser-Gillespie Cedar Company. Oeser died on Jan. 18, 1939, according to his obituary in The Bellingham Herald. In 1943, the Oeser Company opened its facility at the present site, according to the department of state and health services. The company ran for many years without major health concerns. In January of 1978 however, the Department of Ecology issued an interesting memo regarding runoff from the facility into Bellingham Bay. The details from the memo stated that the runoff could affect the health of neighborhoods near Oeser.

While many of Oeser’s employees are aware of health risks while working, they may not have realized the risks they ran simply by living near the facility. The Department of Ecology’s memo stated Oeser’s discharge levels into Bellingham Bay through an “unknown tributary” which was later titled Little Squalicum Creek. The memo stated “urban runoff is undoubtedly picking up unknown quantities of animal wastes, lawn and garden fertilizers and possibly septic tank contamination.” The original intention of the memo was to discover levels of phenol and pentachlorophenol, chemicals used during the time to treat Oeser’s lumber. Despite the detection of organic contamination, the memo later stated that Oeser had a minimal effect on its receiving waters.

Oeser Accident in 1994

It wasn’t until 1994 that Oeser became a target for local residents. The same year a Bellingham environmental activist and independent newspaper delivery person for The Bellingham Herald, named Ron Greene proposed an initiative requiring fines for companies that release toxic chemicals. Greene was an anti-nuclear activist in Nevada before moving to Bellingham in 1993.

At the time Greene said, “The whole time I was working on nuclear testing I was saying the next thing I do is go after chlorine.” Greene studied biology and chemistry and said he wanted to limit chemical releases because his 4-month-old daughter drinks only her mother’s breast milk and many toxic chemicals can get into breast milk.

“I know what these chemicals are,” he said. “I feel obligated to do something about it.” The Bellingham Herald said the Georgia-Pacific Corp. mill in Bellingham made chlorine for use in paper bleaching. Oeser was included in a 1992 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency list of toxic-chemical releasing companies. Greene may have been the Nostradamus of his time, for Oeser released toxic smoke into the atmosphere only three months later.1

The airborne toxins were the result of an Oeser employee’s accident. On September 27, 1994, maintenance and treatment worker Chris George was using a cutting torch when a spark grew into uncontrollable flames. The spark ignited a vat containing a 5 percent solution of penta, which sent heavy black smoke into the air for hours.2 Although no one was injured, Dr. Bill Robertson said one gram of consumed pentachlorophenol can cause liver failure. After a two-hour wait, public notification was finally sent out warning residents of the fire. Residents were told to stay inside their homes, for fear of negative affects from the smoke. Gary Crawford, fire chief for Whatcom County Fire District No. 8 at the time, said he felt the situation could’ve been handled better. “We dropped the ball,” Crawford said.3

The fire was snuffed with foam fire retardant. Jack Weiss, a resident in the Birchwood neighborhood near Oeser, said the foam took too long to extinguish the flame. Had George used a “smoke watch” or a designated individual to watch for fire problems, the fire could’ve been prevented, Crawford said. The fire may not have injured anyone, but many nearby residents could be victims from the toxic fumes released.

“Since the fire, many people have had respiratory problems, including my wife,” Weiss said.

First Creosote, Now Pentachlorophenol (PCP)

No fires have scarred Oeser’s history since the 1994 tragedy; however, toxic chemicals have continued to plague the facility and its neighbors. Creosote, the black, sticky substance often found on railroad ties, was used at Oeser to preserve wood. Oeser used this chemical along with pentachlorophenol (PCP) for more than 40 years. Maryjane Nearman said that beginning in the mid-1980s, Oeser discontinued using creosote but continued using PCP as their preservative; both are hazardous.

“PCP burns, so when steam engines or locomotives were used to transfer logs, combustibility was an issue,” Nearman said. Both organic chemicals are dangerous to the skin. Most importantly, however, the EPA also warned to keep both of these chemicals out of contact with public drinking water. The EPA founded environmental legislation at the dawn of the 1980s as a preventative measure against potentially harmful chemicals, such as Oeser uses.

Miscarriages, birth defects, respiratory ailments and cancer reports from a former landfill in Love Canal, New York, sparked the creation of the EPA’s hazardous waste legislation. As toxic chemicals were reportedly seeping into the residents’ basements and lawns, President Carter took action by signing the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation Liability Act (CERCLA) on December 10, 1980.4

Areas of emergency-level contamination or “Superfund” sites receive immediate EPA action as well as create chemical and petroleum industry taxation. The tax helps alleviate the monetary burden cleanups generate with a trust fund when no responsible party can be identified.5

Sixty Years of Soil and Groundwater Contamination

Seized by CERCLA in 1997, Oeser was found guilty of 60 years of gradual soil and groundwater contamination. Approximately 23,000 gallons of creosote were removed as the first step in Oeser’s cleanup process.6 Nearman said the EPA carried out a cleanup for immediate risk in 1999. It consisted of removing the most contaminated soil; a process consuming the better part of nine months.

Although CERCLA acted in 1997, toxic chemicals were found at Oeser as early as May of 1996. It would be weeks, however, before the toxins were identified. During those harrowing three weeks, residents were scared of the unknown chemicals and their potential for harm. Julie Bennett, a Birchwood resident, said whenever she detected chemical odors, she would bring her son inside their house and close the windows and doors. Another resident, Cherrie Lynch, said she wanted to know if her property would be marketable with the possible health hazards.7

Birchwood residents complained after the state reported that Oeser “poses no health threat.” A nonprofit organization titled the Oeser Cedar Cleanup Coalition subsequently formed around the date of the April 10, 1999, Herald article and wrote a three-page response questioning the report for its lack of detail and evidence.8

Specifically, the coalition’s response argued that the report didn’t explain if health hazards have increased as combined chemicals became evident in the area. The coalition also said a more detailed description of the Superfund’s surrounding area is needed. Many of the conclusions lacked support, such as the notion that children are not at risk, according to the coalition. Finally, the report’s conclusion that air contamination is not a human health risk was refuted by the coalition as “not justified.” 9 Oeser Cedar Cleanup Coalition wrote that response nearly seven years ago, however, many of the questions remain unanswered.

Little Squalicum Creek Adjacent to Oeser

Adjacent to the Oeser Company is Little Squalicum Creek and recreation area—a 320-acre forest lined with a pebble trail and verdant steeples. Mostly used for walking and occasional swimming, Little Squalicum is a “passive recreational site,” said Mary O’Herron, Little Squalicum site manager with the Washington State Department of Ecology. The creek flows into Bellingham Bay.

PCP, dioxins, copper, zinc and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons have all been confirmed at Little Squalicum Creek from an environmental investigation, according to an Ecology fact sheet referenced by Herron. She said Oeser isn’t an identified source, however. Other possible culprits are a nearby technical college, the Birchwood neighborhood and a railway bridge.

Mark Herrenkohl is the scientific consultant hired by the city to cover Little Squalicum Creek’s Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Study (RI/FS). The RI/FS is a supplementary sampling that is re-verified if insufficient data from an area where an unexpected “hit” or contaminant is found. The recreational area must also meet regulations of the Washington State Model Toxics Control Act, which includes extensive ground and surface water testing and statistical analysis.

“Oeser isn’t a determined source,” Herrenkohl said. “That’s why we’re here, to find out.” Herrenkohl further explained that the Department of Ecology listed Little Squalicum Creek at a number one hazard ranking. Herrenkohl will clear the area so soil sampling can begin in early winter.

Rankings are based on toxins present, Mary O’Herron, Little Squalicum park site manager for Department of Ecology, said of the Ecology ranking system, which analyzes the potential threat to human health and the environment. River pathways and other categories can cause a site with less contamination to rank above another, O’Herron said.

“The creek has levels of contaminants related to the Superfund, although Oeser will say different,” said Tim Wahl, the Little Squalicum Creek project coordinator through the city of Bellingham. Jack Weiss, executive director of the Oeser Cedar Cleanup Coalition, also believed that Oeser misjudged Little Squalicum Creek.

Community Coalition Keeps Tabs on Cleanup

The coalition is composed of community members from areas neighboring the Oeser site and is unaffiliated with the EPA or Oeser itself. Weiss explained that what the organization does is “keep tabs” on the cleanup efforts.

The danger of water contamination aside, Weiss mentioned some additional side effects he said Oeser generated. “Air pollution, noise pollution, the stench of PCP and diesel oil [are] not pleasant,” Weiss said.

Weiss and the coalition aren’t the only ones attempting to challenge Oeser. Charles Caldart, litigation attorney with the National Environmental Law Center (NELC), with offices in Boston, Seattle and San Francisco, is one of two lawyers who filed a lawsuit against Oeser. NELC sued for violations of hazardous waste laws, including the Clean Water Act on the basis of toxins going into the waterways, soil and even the air. Caldart said that PCP is a probable human carcinogen with a variety of negative effects on aquatic life.

While Mary Jane Nearman said she believes Oeser has been responsible and met the requirements of the EPA, she said the community’s concern is legitimate.

“It’s reasonable to think this if a facility is nearby,” Nearman said. “It’s good to have folks pushing for those answers.”

Anecdotal opinions are commonplace when neighborhoods are in the vicinity of a factory, Nearman said. There are so many sources of poisoning that there is no way to know where many anthropogenic toxins come from.

“There are toxins in many unexpected things,” Nearman said. “For instance, even in peanut butter, there is a risk for cancer due to aflatoxin, a natural carcinogen.”

Source of Superfund Contaminants

Locating and resolving the source of the Superfund contaminants is the next step. Nearman says the cleanup calls for capping the soil or removing it where the level of toxic waste is high enough. Weiss said that despite cleanup efforts, the area will never remain the same.

“No matter what cleanup they do, you won’t be able to build parks or houses on it,” Weiss said. “The high level of dioxins will only permit for industry structures.”

Weiss said his organization doesn’t accept entombing the toxins with asphalt as an adequate way to prevent contamination. He said that asphalt can crack and it’s possible for the contaminant to spread.

Oeser has agreed to fund much of the cleanup, Nearman said. Many companies don’t act as responsibly as Oeser she said. The EPA saw no action required at Little Squalicum Creek, but she said Oeser is still giving $500,000 towards the situation.

“If the EPA said Oeser is giving money towards the Little Squalicum Creek project, it’s because they’ve been forced to,” Mark Herrenkohl said.

Former mayor Tim Douglas has called the Little Squalicum area his home for more than 75 years. He walks knowingly onto a familiar road leading back to the parking lot of Little Squalicum Creek. He poses a statement concerning the fate that pits industry against nature—the ultimate battle.

“The business [Oeser] just wants to stay afloat and the EPA must keep their standards up,” Douglas said. “As a former mayor, you learn that this situation is actually a tough choice. You have to think about the economy and job growth, yet also balance it with citizens’ own health.”

The government will need about $20 million to fix the pollution problem, Jack Weiss said. Not enough money is being distributed by Oeser itself.

“Oeser will pay $15 million, the rest goes to taxpayers,” Weiss said. “In true Republican fashion, they’d rather see taxpayers pay than a company go out of business.” §

A shorter version of this article was published in the Fall 2005 issue of The Planet, a Huxley College of the Environment magazine.


1 The Bellingham Herald, “Activist wants firms to pay for releasing toxic chemicals,” June 7, 1994, p. B1.

2 The Bellingham Herald, “Toxic chemicals found at Oeser Co.,” May 2, 1996, p. A1.

3 The Bellingham Herald, “Oeser fire fears smolder,” Oct. 6, 1994, p. A1.

4 Superfund: 20 Years of Protecting Human Health and the Environment,

5 Ibid.

6 The Bellingham Herald, “Oeser cleanup begins,” Dec. 12, 1997, p. A3.

7 The Bellingham Herald, “Oeser neighbors air concerns,” May 31, 1996, p. B1.

8 The Bellingham Herald, “Neighbors dispute report on Oeser,” April 10, 1999, p. A6.

9 Ibid.


■ Mary Jane Nearman, Oeser project manager, EPA Region 10.

■ Tim Wahl, Little Squalicum Park project coordinator, city of Bellingham.

■ Jack Weiss, executive director of Oeser Cedar Cleanup Coalition.

■ Mary O’Herron, Little Squalicum park site manager, Department of Ecology.

■ Tim Douglas, former mayor of Bellingham.

■ Mark Herrenkohl, managing scientist/consultant for Integral (Little Squalicum Creek Cleanup).

■ Charles Caldart, litigation attorney, National Environmental Law Center.

■ Francis L. “Pat” Oeser’s obituary, (

■ Department of Health and Human Services (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), (

■ Dept. of Ecology-Oeser Cedar Co. Discharge to Unnamed Creek (Tributary to Bellingham Bay) Memo to John Glynn, (

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