Beach clean-up helps turn the tide on pollution in east Drayton Harbor

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At low tide, the beach at east Drayton Harbor reveals what cannot normally be seen: piles of marine debris, from house shingles to pieces of linoleum and even golf balls. Nets tangle with rocks, and tires sink into the mucky shore.

As a North Sound Steward – a citizen scientist – Margarette Grant is responsible for surveying the beach every month, and has done so since last September. She reports her findings of debris to the University of Washington’s Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST).

“When I went down to the beach and I saw so much stuff, I thought, there’s no way I can pick this all up by myself,” Grant said. “It needs to be a work party.”

When she first noticed the pollution, Grant contacted marine preservation specialists and a resources planner in the county, who connected her with Washington’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR). With assistance from the Conservation Corps, they helped direct a beach clean-up on August 12.

Surrounded by friends and neighbors from her block, who she called to action with an explanatory letter posted on their doors, Grant rapidly gathers shingles and linoleum pieces. She smiles as she unearths one of the larger pieces of litter she’s noticed before while walking on the beach, a length of aqua-colored PVC pipe.

Tires, the other big offenders on the beach, emit a loud “pop” when pulled from the mud by Conservation Corps workers.

“I didn’t think the tires were a problem, but I learned they offset chemicals that are bad for the water quality and the marine animals,” Grant said.

DNR marine debris removal specialist Kristian Tollefson points out a railroad tie for removal that is covered with creosote, a chemical compound used in preserving wood.

Creosote, a type of oil, can be harmful to the entire food web. This might be an area where forage fish spawn, Tollefson said, which feed salmon, which in turn feed orcas. It can even be traced to people.

“It’s a pretty serious form of marine debris that most people don’t know how to recognize or disassociate from other wood,” Tollefson said. “We just think it’s important that people are able to identify what wood on the beach has been treated with this highly toxic chemical.”

Docks, piers and other overwater structures built in Washington state over the past 100 years can contain the chemical. Tollefson said rotting on the interior of a log that has a well-preserved outside indicates creosote treatment.

He said the general ratio is a gallon of treatment per foot of wood, so he estimates the seven-foot-long plank of railroad tie found during the beach clean-up could have as much as seven gallons of creosote absorbed. Modern-day creosote can last in the environment for 20 to 30 years before shipworms and other predators compromise the piling, Tollefson said.

“It’s DNR’s mission to remove as much of this material from the near shore of Puget Sound and the Salish Sea,” Tollefson said.

Equipped with gloves, other volunteers stoop to pick up smaller pieces of plastic litter and building materials that can be loaded into garbage bags. A neighbor, Mary Amsberry, brought her grandchildren along to the clean-up, who delighted in collecting golf balls found on the shore.

“I’ve lived here a long time, but since my kids grew up I haven’t been down to the beach,” Amsbrry said. “I hadn’t realized what had shown up over the years. I was surprised at what was there.”

Amsberry described the event as a learning process. She wasn’t aware that the embedded tires posed such a threat to the environment.

By the end of the clean-up, over 30 tires sat in a massive pile on the shoreline.

“It already seems cleaner,” Amsberry said.

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