Soil and water

How Eugene can prevent toxic fiascos like JH Baxter’s from happening again

When JH Baxter closed in January, the community heralded a new era of cleaner air and more livable neighborhoods. This creosote chemical company polluted nearby communities for seven decades. The day after the factory closed, neighbors could suddenly take a breath of fresh air without coughing, headaches, or nausea.

Like the black, tarry stain of creosote, JH Baxter continues to leave its fetid mark on its Bethel neighbors. Protecting itself from the consequences of toxic chemical intrusion is the company’s hallmark legacy. JH Baxter benefits from our community in three main ways.

Pollute. First, JH Baxter exposed residents to air polluted with a cocktail of naphthalene, ammonia, methanol, acetaldehyde and a much longer list of dangerous chemicals. At the same time, the plant contaminated groundwater with pentachlorophenol (a carcinogen) and soil with dioxin (a carcinogen). State and federal agencies are trying to figure out what it will take to clean up the widespread polluted mess.

CONTESTATION. Second, JH Baxter violated environmental protection laws. Regulators knew the company was a repeat intentional polluter as far back as 2012. Unfortunately, nothing has changed. As environmental violations piled up and escalated, JH Baxter used the corporate tactic of dispute and delay to deter agencies from holding them to account. She’s played this card before – the company is responsible for at least one Superfund site in California. Like a white-collar thriller, these deceptions got JH Baxter away from their pollution, every time.

Scooter. Finally, in the face of evidence that he had caused dioxin contamination in residential properties, JH Baxter forced regulators to go to court, buying time and forcing our state agencies to spend money audience. For example, JH Baxter used this tactic when he was fined $305,440 for gross violations of hazardous waste and water quality laws since 2015. He used the courts to challenge the evidence of violations and protest civil fines. After dragging out the litigation for nearly a year, on July 14, JH Baxter signed a formal settlement agreement requiring him to immediately pay the full $305,440 and “resolve” the DEQ’s enforcement actions. .

Ignoring his pledge, JH Baxter chose the evasive “scoot” maneuver, continuing his historic pattern of breaching community trust, signing documents in bad faith, and circumventing Oregon laws. The company is now refusing to pay its debt of $305,440! After two months of blocking, it seems that the company does not intend to pay the fine despite the signing of the legal settlement. What’s the excuse? Company CEO Georgia Baxter says years of profits have simply disappeared. JH Baxter is also refusing to help pay for the dioxin cleanup of residential yards that are now contaminated from years of environmental violations.

Fortunately, the Oregon Department of Justice is investigating how the state can recoup the money owed in civil penalties and the millions of dollars spent to clean up toxic dioxin, both from the polluter’s property and in Bethel Resident Classes. However, Oregon’s weak corporate liability laws make this difficult.

JH Baxter understood that he could pollute, dispute and spin – with impunity.

Eugene can take steps to prevent a similar toxic fiasco from happening again. We can hold polluters accountable. Together, Eugene’s elected officials and residents must impose tough demands to end the chronic misdeeds of polluters. Our legislature needs to give our regulators more tools to curb chronic polluters.

Our City Councilors and State Legislators need to hear directly from you that we need solutions that will end the dodgy cycle of pollution, disputes and scooting.

In the news:A month after JH Baxter agreed to pay DEQ debts, no sign of payment in progress

Bethel’s neighbors have long suffered from industrial pollution. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the past when houses and industrial plots were placed on adjacent land and families had to endure fumes, loud noises and vibrations, polluted water and burning.

We can do more to combat the high levels of asthma and cancer in this neighborhood. We can replace evil with good. Rather than assuming that JH Baxter’s property will be sold off to another polluting industry, we can argue for something beneficial. Why not pave the property with asphalt and set up a community solar project or an emergency preparedness infrastructure project? The people of Bethel deserve something innovative, not more than decades of pollution.

Lisa Arkin is the Executive Director of Beyond Toxics.