THE DALLES, Ore. -- When Rachel Najjar moved from Beaverton to The Dalles last summer, she fell in love with the quaint town in the Columbia River Gorge. She and her husband bought their first house, a small ranch overlooking the river. Seven months pregnant with two young children, Najjar thought she had finally found the home where she could raise her family.
But Najjar said her idyllic life crumbled when, one hot day, her two toddlers became violently ill.
“They just started chugging water,” she said. “Then they started vomiting profusely. They wouldn’t stop. I was really scared. Then they willingly walked to their bed, got in and went to sleep. I couldn’t wake them for five hours."
Najjar believes the problem stemmed from Amerities West, a railroad tie factory that’s been using a coal tar byproduct called creosote to treat wood since 1922. Najjar’s home is on a bluff directly above the plant.
One of the chemicals in creosote is the pesticide naphthalene, which is considered carcinogenic by the World Health Organization. It’s also associated with headaches, nausea and vomiting.
Unlike some other toxics, naphthalene has a sharp scent, like a mix between standing at a gas station and inside of a tire store. It’s the active ingredient in mothballs.
Najjar says she smells naphthalene nearly every day. On the day her children got sick, the smell was overwhelming.
“You can smell the coal tar,” Najjar said. “You can’t escape it.”
The Department of Environmental Quality issued permits to Amerities based on federal standards without considering the impact naphthalene had on human health. While the plant operates within emissions limits, the amount of naphthalene in the air has been measured at levels considered unsafe for people to breathe.
The Oregon Health Authority places a benchmark for breathing naphthalene at less than .03 micrograms per cubic meter (mpcm). According to OHA toxicologist David Farrer, breathing levels higher than that for a year or more can increase the risk of cancer.
In two tests done by Amerities in September 2011 and February 2012, naphthalene levels were found between 29 and 9,600 times the benchmark for safety in locations across The Dalles.
The Department of Environmental Quality did not conduct more tests. In 2015, it re-issued an air quality permit to Amerities with no alterations to the amount of naphthalene the plant could emit.
Based on the Amerities permit, which is good until 2020, the plant could be releasing more than three times as many toxins into the air as it does now.
In February 2016, air quality concerns around two glass factories in Portland sent a shockwave through the DEQ, triggering an overhaul of the department and staff shake-up. A new interim director is set to take over next week.
But change isn’t coming quickly enough for some residents of The Dalles.
94 years of creosote
The Amerities plant has been in The Dalles longer than nearly everyone who lives there. Opened in 1922, Amerities has been treating railroad ties and providing dozens of living wage jobs for decades. The plant is classified as an active superfund site.
Like other industries, Amerities was largely unregulated until the Clean Air Act established permit requirements in 1977. Since then, they’ve received a permit from the DEQ that has barely changed.
Amerities treats between 3,000 and 4,500 railroad ties a day. Railroad cars full of 7-inch by 9-inch by 8 ½-foot squared-off logs are shipped in every day. Each tie weighs about 200 pounds and soaks up more than two gallons of creosote when the ties are submerged in bulbous tanks for up to 10 hours. The ties are then dried outside in the open air, in massive stacks like rows of townhouses.
Naphthalene is one of about 300 chemicals in the creosote and it’s the primary VOC, or volatile organic compounds released into the air. According to the DEQ permit, Amerities can emit 39 tons of VOCs into the air annually. It’s averaging 11 tons a year.
Plant manager Jeff Thompson said the ties are in steady production Monday through Friday to feed the need for constant maintenance on railroads across the western U.S. Treating a railroad tie with creosote protects ties from bugs and rot for upwards of 30 years, 10 times longer than untreated ties.
“The killer of a tie is moisture,” Thompson said.
The killer of moisture is creosote. The untreated railroad ties are light wood, the color of a sunbeam on a white wall. After treatment, they are an oily brownish-black. Drying outside, the army of railroad ties emits an overwhelming smell of mothballs.
Thompson says he’s not concerned about the health effects of creosote or naphthalene.
“I never thought it presented a hazard to me or my family or frankly, I wouldn’t work here,” he said. “I’ve got a retaining wall of ties in my yard.”
Amerities is testing an alternate treatment, called copper naphthenate, on some ties. But Thompson said Union Pacific, the railroad giant that owns the land Amerities sits on and the railroad ties Amerities treats, prefers creosote because it’s cheaper.
In a statement, Union Pacific says it operates within the regulations set by the EPA.
“At Union Pacific, we believe that when you are part of the American landscape you protect it. That's why protecting the environment is a guiding principle at Union Pacific,” spokesman Justin Jacobs said.
As for the people who complain about the odor?
“A lot of the people we talk to who are the most vocal chose to move into the area. It’s not like we’re hiding,” Thompson said.
Testing does not impact DEQ’s permit
The DEQ says Amerities has always operated within its permit requirements. In 2011 and 2012, the plant even self-reported naphthalene levels at the DEQ’s request, due to budget issues within the agency.
Amerities picked two days, one in September and one in February, to test the air.
The study found levels between 0.88 and 13 micrograms per cubic meter of naphthalene in residential areas, and between 53 and 290 mpcm closer to the plant.
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, “the typical background concentration in everyday air for naphthalene are approximately 1 mpcm. The DEQ has an annual benchmark of .03 mpcm, which is designed to protect the public against cancer.”
Since then, the DEQ has not issued any more tests. Because there has not been more monitoring, no one knows whether naphthalene levels are that high every day.
The DEQ said it is now going to test more often, but doesn’t yet have a plan in place.
Thompson says the Oregon Health Authority has assured him the plant is operating safely.
“Am I concerned about the health issues? Like anybody, yes I’m always concerned about health issues,” he said. “I’ve got 52 people to support right here. They have the greatest exposure of anybody here in town. What I’ve heard from the people at the Oregon Health Authority is they don’t feel we – the concentrations and exposure - even though what came up was higher than the benchmark, they’re not saying it presents an issue.”
Because there was only two days of testing, OHA can’t say for certain that the air is always that bad.
Nina DeConcini, the Northwest regional administrator for the DEQ, said the agency's permitting program only takes into account health effects on humans based on the federal standards set by the Clean Air Act, and not health effects on a local level.
“While this isn’t an excuse, the way it’s set up is it’s emissions-based, or technology based,” she said. "So the disconnect could occur if there isn’t a health or risk-based component associated with what conditions they have to have in their permit. So for example, right now that isn’t something that’s a consideration. What we’re proposing through the Cleaner Air program that the governor has announced is to take into account what the health or risk-based factors are around a facility.”
Residents question safety, smell
Rachel Najjar is not the first person to voice concern about the Amerities plant. When she first realized what the odor was, she went online and found a group of residents trying to bring more attention to the odor.
Kris Cronkright runs the website What’s That Smell. She first noticed the odor when she moved to The Dalles in 2014.
“I get migraines and I was getting them much more often,” she said. “I know it was the creosote because we were living right above the plant.”
Cronkright said she called Amerities plant manager Thompson, who visited her home with a coworker.
“They told me they couldn’t smell it and they expressed surprise that I didn’t know the plant was there,” she said.
Alarmed by Amerities’ response, she moved with her husband and their 4-year-old son to a home on the west side of town, where the odors are less noticeable. But Cronkright said there are still days when the smell is intense.
When Amerities’ permit with the DEQ came up for renewal in 2015, Cronkright attended a town hall meeting where she and other residents pleaded their case for new limits. The DEQ implemented a “nuisance odor strategy” and asked residents to file a complaint each time they smelled naphthalene.
Cronkright has filed more than 130 complaints.
Amerities and the DEQ signed an agreement April 8 to test odor-reducing ideas. So far, Amerities has started stacking the ties closer together so less air flows in between them.
Cronkright doesn’t think that’s enough action. Portland lawyer Tom D’Amore agrees. He is looking into a class-action lawsuit to address the odor, because he believes that could create the quickest change.
“The health effects are what concerns the residents out there. The bottom line is we just don’t know if there are serious health effects or not,” he said.
OHA toxicologist Farrer says there could be serious health risks from naphthalene.
“Of the diseases that naphthalene can cause, at the lowest doses, the most sensitive health effect is an increased risk in cancer,” he said. “Lung cancer is the cancer of greatest concern with naphthalene.”
For concerned residents, both OHA and DEQ recommend going to a physician and if the physician has questions about toxics, to contact OHA.
Rachel Najjar took her children to a pediatrician after they became sick last summer and asked him what she should do.
“He said I should just move,” she recalled.
OHA toxicologist Farrer advised Najjar to listen to her doctor.
“I am a parent and I have kids and it’s a horrible thing to have your kids be sick,” he said. “Generally we do advise people to follow the advice of their healthcare providers.”