State to Remediate Creosote Dripping From Royalton Bridge Into White River

  • Creosote beads on the bottom of the bridge on Bridge Street above the White River in Royalton, Vt., on July 10, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, July 23, 2018

Royalton Village — The bridge that dripped hot melted creosote onto recreational users of the White River earlier this month has been posted with warning signs and will be the subject of a remedial project later this summer, according to state environmental officials.

Scientists with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation said the problem likely is not confined to one bridge, and that they hope to confirm that the Royalton water supply has not been polluted.

“The wells are on a hillside that’s somewhat removed from the bridge,” said Ethan Swift, a program manager within the Watershed Management Division of the DEC on Monday. “(The bridge) is not in very close proximity, and it seems to be isolated from where the groundwater is entering those wells. That’s one thing our Drinking Water and Groundwater Supply Division is looking into.”

During the unusually hot Fourth of July week, creosote, a tar-like chemical that’s used to protect lumber against fungus and wood-boring insects, dripped from the underside of the wooden deck that carries Bridge Street across the White River in Royalton Village and caused chemical burns on the skin of several people who were tubing on the river.

Creosote is a probable carcinogen, and typically is considered as part of a larger group of problematic fossil fuel-based pollutants called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. When PAH is deposited in water, it can poison tiny organisms and make its way up the food chain, eventually accumulating in larger quantities in the body tissues of fish.

Swift said that the DEC has seen cases in which creosote-treated lumber, like railroad ties, have caused pollution in standing bodies of water, but that this is the first time a bridge has been the point of concern.

But Swift said PAH levels are less likely to pose a health hazard in larger, flowing bodies of water like the White River, which tends to dilute its contaminants and flush them downstream.

And Mary Russ, executive director of the Royalton-based environmental group White River Partnership, said the creosote has not shown up in years of water quality tests in the river.

“It gets very diluted,” Russ said.

She said that the White River Partnership is partnering with the town and state to do some targeted water quality testing to ensure that there is not a hazardous accumulation.

Though local residents have known about the creosote for decades, state and municipal officials said they were unaware of the problem until one of the people whose skin had been burned called the town and posted a warning on social media sites.

The bridge, constructed in 1928, was renovated in 1982, which likely is when the treated timber was put onto the site. Swift said that the timber likely was supersaturated, meaning that so much creosote was used that it has wept out during optimal weather conditions.

The town was aware of the problem about 15 years ago, but officials thought that they had fixed it by removing the asphalt from the bridge for a few years to allow it to dry out.

The recent complaint has put it back on the town’s radar, and officials hope to address it more successfully during another asphalt replacement project, which coincidentally was scheduled to happen this summer anyway.

Royalton Town Administrator Rose Hemond reached out to the Vermont Agency of Transportation’s Hazardous Materials Unit to review and price out options, which range from replacing the weeping timber altogether, to shaving it, to installing some sort of coating that would prevent the creosote from dripping.

Swift said his division will incorporate what it learns from the Royalton bridge into its tactical basin plans, which are used to help assess priorities for inspections and water quality tests.

“Historically, a lot of bridge timbers were treated with these coal tar creosote materials,” he said. “It’s likely this situation has occurred somewhere else. But it’s just not on our radar screens. Certainly, it’s something that we are paying more attention to now.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.