Video: Washington Conservation Corps Removes Toxic Debris from Puget Sound Lagoon

Story and Video from
Jeff Burnside

SEABECK, Wash. -- Chainsaws shattered the quiet Tuesday at one of the most picturesque spots on Puget Sound. 

The natural estuaries in Nick's Lagoon in Seabeck, on Hood Canal, have a problem.

"It's a toxic chemical," said Kristian Tollefson, a restoration specialist with the Washington Department of Natural Resources, referring to the creosote permeating the decades-old wood debris.

"This is a part of an old marine railway structure," he said standing next to a massive unidentifiable portion of a wooden dock of some kind. 

For generations past, industry boomed in this area. But its remnants have prevented nature from taking it back.

"Yeah, that's actually a piece of ship," said Scott Phillips, a worker with Puget Soundcorp, part of the 12-man crew on site today beginning the removal of 15 tons of debris. "I'm not sure where it came from but we're cutting it up and getting it out."

There is steel, metal floats, tires and more. But the most dangerous is the creosote-soaked wood debris. Lots of it. 

"Over time," Tollefson said, "this creosote will leech into the substrate of the beach and make it impossible for fish to spawn in that area." 

Chain saws have cut some of the 10 inch by 10 inch wooden ties revealing creosote soak marks several inches into the wood.

"We're removing it now to just essentially eliminate the risk of this creosote material continuing to leech onto this beach here," he said.

It's not just a threat to nature, but to humans. 

"From a human health perspective, you wouldn't want this on your beach or in your park," Tollefson said.

Because the debris is likely many generations old, there is no attempt to hold responsible parties accountable.

"To be honest with you, we don't really know where it came from and we're not necessarily interested in where it came from," Tollefson said. "We're just interested in getting rid of it and getting it off the beach."

"If there's debris out there, I'll go and get it," said Phillips. 

Phillips is a military veteran and one of several on the crew as part of an initiative to employ former members of the military. They get a small stipend and part of a college scholarship through Americorps, which is partnering with the Washington Conservation Corp and Puget Soundcorps. The job training and civic service groups normally hire teenagers for a year of service. But returning military veterans are also part of some of the teams.

"Personally," said Phillips, "I'd like to come back and see this place completely free of debris."

The debris gets taken to a special landfill for potentially hazardous materials. It's part of a broader restoration effort across Puget Sound.