USFS in trouble for burning creosote-laden railroad ties

Railroad tie fire
Photo: Arizona Daily Sun

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality is investigating an incident on the Kaibab National Forest in which thousands of creosote-treated railroad ties were burned.

From the Arizona Daily Sun:

U.S. Forest Service employees conducting a prescribed fire at the end of February also set an estimated thousands of chemically treated railroad ties ablaze southwest of Tusayan.

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality is investigating the fire, as the Kaibab National Forest would have needed special permission to dispose of the creosote-treated wood.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers creosote (a coal-tar product used to protect wood from insects and rotting) a possible cancer-causing agent and warns the public not to burn it in fireplaces at home due to risk of releasing “toxic chemicals.”

Creosote-treated wood poses possible risks when used as landscaping, or if in contact with drinking water, the Environmental Protection Agency warns.

Along with items such as batteries and car tires, it’s also illegal under state law for residents to burn chemically treated wood as part of trash-disposing fires.

Fire officers working under the direction of Fire Management Officer Gary Bishop disposed of these railroad ties by adding them to a slash-burning fire, said Jackie Banks, a spokeswoman for the Kaibab National Forest.

Bishop did not immediately return a call seeking comment on Tuesday.

The site of the fire is off Forest Road 347, near a rail line headed from Williams to the Grand Canyon at the edge of the national forest.

“They thought they were doing a good thing by removing fuels that could have posed a lot of problems were they to catch fire during fire season,” Banks said.

ADEQ called on a report that the fire was still smoldering more than a week later, and the Forest Service learned it had erred, Banks said.

“We acknowledge that it was a mistake. We have handed over whatever information we have” to ADEQ, Banks said.

The environmental agency’s reports show that the Forest Service had permission to burn brush and other forest materials on Feb. 28, but not railroad ties or chemically treated wood.

ADEQ has not taken any enforcement action to date but says it is investigating the case.


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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.