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Mulch madness

Fellow state agency and neighborhood activists criticize ODOT's use
by: JIM CLARK, The state highway department has been using mulch that contains chunks of asphalt roofing shingles only to recently discover that it might be carcinogenic. This photo was taken at the corner of Southwest Bertha and Barbur boulevards.

Neighborhood activists are demanding that the Oregon Department of Transportation remove tons of asphalt shingle mulch spread along state rights of way throughout the Portland area.

The mulch includes shredded asphalt roofing shingles. Although ODOT has spread the mulch on landscaped areas along state freeways for several years, the state Department of Environmental Quality recently determined that it contains potentially cancer-causing arsenic, zinc, lead and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarcarbons at levels exceeding those considered safe for residential and commercial settings.

'Children are especially at risk by ingesting the mulch or breathing its dust,' the DEQ said in a February consumer alert.

'Because young bodies grow and develop rapidly, toxins have the ability to cause lasting harm if children are repeatedly exposed to these substances.'

Hillsdale Neighborhood Association President Don Baack claims the mulch poses a serious environmental threat.

In a March 8 letter to the city's transportation commissioner, Sam Adams, Baack faulted ODOT for spreading the mulch without first testing it for safety.

'Hillsdale and Portland residents in general pay some of the highest sewer and municipal rates in the nation to improve and protect our community's water quality,' Baack wrote.

'It's reckless, negligent and unsafe practices like ODOT's use of this asphalt shingle mulch product without careful analysis and study that exacerbates our rates and diminishes our efforts and trust in our government.'

ODOT spokesman Shawn Uhlman confirms that the mulch has been spread throughout the Portland area, including along Interstate 405 and the intersection of Southwest Bertha and Barbur boulevards in Hillsdale.

Uhlman said ODOT has purchased approximately 30,000 cubic yards of the mulch in the past and still has around 8,000 cubic yards left.

Uhlman said ODOT stopped using the mulch when the DEQ issued its findings in February and now is working with the environmental agency to determine whether any of it should be removed. Representatives from the two agencies are scheduled to meet in early April to discuss the situation.

'We are completing an assessment of where we've applied it,' said Uhlman, who estimates it was spread over 50 locations in the region.

The DEQ consumer alert recommended removing the mulch from residential and commercial areas.

The mulch was sold in different parts of the state as No Spark Bark and Budget Bark. It was developed by RoofGone Inc., an Oregon business that was recycling wood and roofing materials. According to DEQ spokesman Bob Barrows, RoofGone began combining the materials and selling it as a low-cost bark substitute in the late 1990s.

Barrows said DEQ did not realize the product was potentially hazardous until an agency employee saw a pile of the mulch at an ODOT storage site, realized that it contained petroleum products and had it tested.

According to Barrows, the DEQ has not banned the mulch but recommended that it not be applied in residential and commercial areas.

'We don't have the power to ban a product. We can penalize a user if a property becomes polluted. It's probably OK for industrial settings where there aren't many people, as long as it's used away from bodies of water,' Barrows said.

The Portland Tribune could not reach RoofGone owner Darold Smith for comment. In a recent Internet posting, Smith said he was not commenting on the issue for legal reasons. DEQ recently fined his Springfield site $12,856 for administrative problems, including not providing the agency with evidence that it has the financial ability to clean up the site, if necessary.

According to ODOT Region 1 operations and maintenance manager Karla Keller, the mulch originally appeared to have many benefits. It cost far less than bark dust - just $1 to $4 per cubic yard for the mulch, compared with $15 to $18 per cubic yard for bark dust.

In addition, it was made of recycled products, was fire-resistant and allowed plants to grow but suppressed weeds.

'The promised benefits proved true, but now there are these other issues to deal with,' Keller said.

Keller said the ODOT review may show that some areas still are safe for the mulch.

'Many of the landscaped areas we maintain are away from people and don't even have sidewalks or other ways to reach them,' she said.

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