Kitsap beach collects Puget Sound flotsam

By Christopher Dunagan
Indianola, Washington (AP) March 2011

As wet winds slapped him in the face, Dave Roberts stood on a beach piled in driftwood and pointed across the wide-open waters of Puget Sound.

“You’re looking straight south,” Roberts shouted against the fierce gusts blowing into shore. “Over there is Seattle, and down there is Tacoma.”

Flanked by steep hills on each side with an expansive salt marsh behind, this beach serves as a natural funnel for collecting floating wood and debris from a broad expanse of Central Puget Sound.

“Stuff from all around ends up here,” said Roberts, an aquatics lands manager with the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

Roberts has come to the estuary this week to direct workers who are picking up creosote pilings, creosote railroad ties and creosote lumber, all washed ashore over the past 100 years. Extreme tides through the decades has scattered hundreds of tons of toxic debris back up into the marsh.

Last week, a helicopter pilot directed his aircraft into the gusty winds, as rain-soaked ground crews prepared the logs for lifting. Each creosote log was dropped next to a road, where workers with chain saws sliced the pieces into six-foot lengths. The shortened pieces will be placed into dumpsters, which will be dumped into railcars, which will be dumped into a toxic-waste landfill in Klickitat County.

Crews also are picking up man-made trash scattered throughout the area.

This beach and estuary is known to the Suquamish as Doe-Keg-Wats, meaning “place of deer.” Tribal people came here to fish, dig clams and hunt deer for hundreds of years, said Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman. Because of its relative isolation, the area remains an important place for tribal ceremonies, including weddings and memorial services, he said.

Getting the creosote logs out of the marsh and off the beach will improve the health of the ecosystem, Roberts said.

“There is a high concentration of creosote in here, compared to other areas, because the logs lay in the sun and creosote leaches into the water,” he said.

Even in the cool weather last week, oil could be seen floating on the water near a pile of creosote logs.

Roberts turned away from the beach and picked his way across the piles of driftwood. He pointed out a variety of coated pilings and lumber. Much of the debris is the product of 50 years of waterfront development in Puget Sound, he said.

Short pilings scattered across the beach drifted here after dock-builders cut off pilings for a pier and allowed the pieces to float away, he said. Odd-shaped pieces of lumber were once deck boards, bracing and other parts of docks demolished by the waves.

The Department of Natural Resources is spending millions of dollars to remove unused creosote pilings to keep the material from breaking away and reaching places like Doe-Keg-Wats estuary, he said. Since 2003, DNR has removed more than 6,000 tons of creosote-treated wood from Puget Sound.

Doe-Keg-Wats is still recovering from a 2003 oil spill at Point Wells between Seattle and Everett. During the spill, some 4,700 gallons of diesel fuel reached the water, a portion of which drifted across Puget Sound and landed on the beach near Indianola. The area was cleaned up as much as possible, but lesser amounts of oil remain buried in the sediments.

Jay Zischke, a fisheries biologist with the Suquamish Tribe, said the estuary is an important rearing area for juvenile salmon, other small fish and invertebrates. Birds eat fish and invertebrates, concentrating oil chemicals in their bodies.

“We know these pocket estuaries are important,” Zischke said, “and there aren’t many intact ones left.”