AmeriTies complaints aired at meeting

Untreated and treated railroad ties stored at AmeriTies West in The Dalles. Emissions from the plant were at the top of a meeting hosted by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Tuesday.

Photo by Jesse Burkhardt.
Untreated and treated railroad ties stored at AmeriTies West in The Dalles. Emissions from the plant were at the top of a meeting hosted by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Tuesday.

Sometimes emotional residents cited their health problems and made calls to close AmeriTies West at a meeting Tuesday to discuss air quality monitoring focused on naphthalene emissions from the tie plant.

State officials said the plant was well within its permitted emissions, and was within its rights to increase production, as it has done in recent months.

No representatives of AmeriTies spoke at the meeting, where about 50 people were on hand to hear officials summarize air quality testing already done and announce plans for more of it.

Testing last summer and fall — triggered by odor complaints — found naphthalene levels that well exceeded benchmarks for lifetime exposure but were well below acute exposure levels. In December, the tie plant cut its naphthalene emissions in half by switching to a different wood preservative formula.

Naphthalene is a component of creosote, which is used in preserving railroad ties.

New air quality testing will begin in June with the installation of a permanent air quality monitor that will take samples every six days for a year. Then in July and August – when the hot weather causes the most off-gassing of naphthalene — more intensive testing will occur.

Meanwhile, the state is working on new air quality standards to address the gap between federal air emission standards and the lower levels at which human impact is seen, a state official said after the meeting.

The first commentator said, “I have significant breathing problems whenever I go by the AmeriTies plant.” He said studies have shown a link between asthma and naphthalene. “My concern is we’re pre-disposing our youth to asthma.”

The next speaker strode up to the panel of speakers and said, “I wanna talk about stench. I wanna see a graph up there that measures the stink level.”

He asked if the data collected went to anyone “who cares” or anyone “with power… I want it shut down.” He suggested that the drying rail ties that sit in the yard of the plant be moved somewhere unpopulated to dry. “The ties do not have to stay here to cure,” he said.

When the rail plant opened nearly a century ago, it was well away from populated areas. The town has grown around it in the succeeding decades.

Tiffany Woodside said her daughter has “horrible headaches with projective vomiting, dizziness” and “squirting bloody noses.” When she sees doctors, they ask her about the tie plant.

She said she’s been “sucking” the naphthalene for 43 years, and her body is worn out. A year ago she finally “connected the dots” about what was causing her family's health issues. When she smells naphthalene – it has the distinctive odor of mothballs – “I get a headache. There’s muscle twitches, and it’s immediate.” She believes there are cumulative effects to repeated exposures. “There’s studies saying creosote is connected to these health effects. Why are you not acknowledging that? Why are you dancing around that? People here are suffering,” Woodside said.

Mark Bailey, air quality manager for DEQ, noted after the meeting that OSHA studies of workers at the plant have not found health problems with employees.

Air quality testing last year found the levels of naphthalene at various locations in town were well below acute levels — only recently established at 200 micrograms per cubic meter — but well above the lifetime exposure level, which is just .03 micrograms per cubic meter.

The lifetime exposure level of .03 micrograms assumes daily, round-the-clock exposure over a 70-year lifespan. It is set at a point low enough that if one million people were exposed to that level, just one person would develop a case of cancer due to the exposure, said Julie Sifuentes, program manager of the public health division at the Oregon Health Authority.

Testing results showed naphthalene concentration levels ranged from .006 to 5.78 micrograms per cubic meter.

The highest measured concentrations were found at the Wasco County public works and planning building, located immediately east of AmeriTies.

The average concentration of naphthalene in samples varied considerably by location.

The lowest average was at Cherry Heights, (.063 micrograms per cubic meter) while the highest average was at the county public works/planning building (2.37 micrograms per cubic meter.)

One speaker, who said she was a nurse, said she felt a category was missing, which was neither acute, nor lifetime, but rather long-term.

Officials spoke of a “worst-case scenario” of lifetime exposure. She said perhaps just five years of exposure might constitute “a worst-case scenario for me.”

She said, “a lot of people that have lived here for 30 years have had dozens of short-term exposures, and that’s the problem.”

A man who identified himself as a health care provider said the symptoms of difficult breathing and dizziness indicated damage to the body.

Sifuentes said it was her understanding that the problems reported here are odor-induced and go away once the person is removed from the odor.

The health care provider said, “The damage is done to the brain the moment you experience hypoxia [reduced oxygen] and dizziness.”

Dr. Arthur Wendel, a medical officer with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said if a person holds their breath, for example, they are not causing long-term damage.

The provider said of the tie plant, “They’ve obviously outgrown their welcome. It seems like the relationship has come to the point where it needs to be severed.”

Another person asked officials if toxic effects were even on the table for consideration. He asked if the state was contending their reported symptoms “are only caused by odors. There is no toxic effect. You’re not concerned about that. That is not in the purview of your efforts.”

The man said a state official told him his symptoms were “all in your head.”

“It’s very troubling when you assign all these health risks that we experience as a community over and over and say it’s nothing to do with naphthalene. It’s just in your head because you smell it.”

Another man said if the problems people reported were water-related, the public would be up in arms, but since it’s air-related, it is not getting the same concern.

Sifuentes said odors can be strong, but not necessarily toxic. She said officials are receiving the message that symptoms are being experienced, however, and that they are real.

She said possible symptoms from smelling strong odors can include headache, dizziness, watery eyes and nose, and stress.

She said those symptoms don’t necessarily mean people are being exposed to toxic amounts of chemicals.

“It is having an impact, but it’s a different kind of impact,” she said.

She said the lifelong benchmark for naphthalene is set so low that people can be confident that even with a lifetime of exposure, it is not causing harm.

The high levels of naphthalene found did not mean risk is present, it just means more in depth analysis is needed, she said. That is what triggered the call for what is called a health consultation. The consultation will determine if the levels of contaminants are high enough to harm health. If a problem is found, the assessment will propose remedies.

The health consultation will be done by the federal toxic substances agency, in cooperation with the Oregon Health Authority.

Kris Cronkright, who said her symptoms included extreme exhaustion and headaches, criticized the planned analysis for not gathering health data from people.

She wanted the focus to be on the toxic effects of a toxin.

The analysis carries the title of “health consultation,” which gives the impression of gathering health data from people, but rather it looks at environmental data.

Wendel, with the federal toxic substances agency, said studies of health effects in people would not be effective because naphthalene comes from many sources, and gathering data from a person would not pinpoint the source of the naphthalene. Air quality testing is the method for pinpointing the source, he said.

Wendel said the health study will compare air monitoring data to established comparison values. It will try to determine how much exposure has occurred over time.

For example, that could determine if being exposed to twice the lifetime limit for half your life is equivalent to the health risks of lifetime exposure.

It will also evaluate risks to more vulnerable populations, such as children.Naphthalene is prevalent and occurs naturally in coal, oil and gas and is also a byproduct of things like vehicle emissions, wildfires, backyard barbecuing and smoking, said Lori Pillsbury, resource assessment manager with DEQ.

Depending on how it is compiled — whether it does separate reports on the 2016 data and then the 2017 data, or reports them in one big analysis — the health consultation will be finished in either fall of 2017 or spring of 2018.

Cronkright said the new recipe with half the naphthalene was no different to her. Bailey said reactions were across the board to the new recipe, with some experiencing less symptoms or odor, some more, and some reporting no change.

Another speaker said, “I feel like we’re whipping that dead horse called creosote, and we’re seeing lots of concrete ties going in.” She wanted to see the plant switch to concrete. “No one loses jobs. Just move on. Let’s bury this dinosaur.”

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