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Crematorium concerns halt permit hearing

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A row of anti-crematorium signs along First St. in Winlock near where a proposed crematorium by Cattermole Funeral Home could be established. A public hearing scheduled for this week to consider a conditional use permit for the business has been postponed indefinitely in light of such opposition.

A zoning permit hearing for a proposed crematorium in Winlock has been postponed indefinitely after local residents raised concerns over the facility’s potential the pollute the area.

Proposed by Cattermole Funeral Home to be built at 201 First St., residents and business owners have rallied against the potential business since notifications announcing the hearing, which had been scheduled for this Wednesday, were mailed out May 7 to those nearby.

Among their worries are the potential for smoke and ash to affect buildings and people in the downtown area, as well as poisonous vapors from chemicals such as mercury, which can be emitted in the instance of bodies burned with dental fillings.

But as dangerous as these hazards may be, Cattermole Funeral Home Owner Russ Weeks says crematoria actually produce very little pollution, though he made the decision Friday to postpone the hearing so he can take time and clarify many of the concerns that have been circulating.

“I just hope by postponing we can diffuse the situation and communicate,” said Weeks in an interview Saturday, stating he had spoken personally the day before with one concerned resident and, after this interaction, decided it would be best to halt the crematorium approval process. “I think we probably will sit down, certainly with all the leaders of the group, just to be able to answer any questions.”

Leading the opposition has been resident Rosanna Wong, who said she felt it was her personal mission to educate Winlock about the crematorium after learning not all residents had been notified by the city (only those within 300 feet of the proposed site).

“The town belongs to the people living in it and they should know,” she said in an interview Thursday. “I thought my job was to go door-to-door and let them know what is happening.”

Wong stated, after conducting research online, she found articles from sources such as NBC News, the LA Times and The University of Florida which spoke of the volume of mercury vapors, as well as certain oxides and sulfides, which are common in crematorium exhaust, and said, while she is not opposed to the business itself, she does not believe it belongs in Downtown Winlock.

“We just encourage them to put it in our industrial park,” she said, indicating the large, under-developed property owned by Benaroya near I-5. “We have nothing against the crematorium, it’s just [First St.] is not the right location.”

While Weeks did indicate he is not opposed to using a location other than the property currently proposed, which his company purcahsed last November, he said it remains his hope to address concerns raised by Wong, and others, in an effort to find a solution that will best serve the community.

“It may be legally possible,” Weeks said of his current right to move forward with the project, “but it may upset the community members, and that’s not a good thing.”

A house at 201 First St. where the proposed crematorium is intended to be established. While Cattermole Funeral Home purchased the property in November, opposition leader Rosanna Wong said Monday she would be willing to buy the property for $26,000, the price the funeral home paid, to eliminate it as an option for a local crematorium.

So what comes out of a crematorium?

Despite burning dead bodies, and all the images such a seen may conjure, the modern process of cremation is actually quite clean and pollution-free, according to Chief Engineer Paul Mairose, of the Southwest Clean Air Agency (SWCAA).

SWCAA, based in Vancouver, is responsible for maintaining air quality standards throughout our region, and approves permits for facilities with the potential to release pollutants into the atmosphere, including crematoria.

But Mairose said his agency approves permits for crematoria more as a matter of procedure than an effort to mitigate pollution, as such facilities burn so hot they leave very little other than water vapor and carbon dioxide to be expelled.

“Generally, the emissions are extremely low,” he said, stating the temperatures within a crematorium furnace burn around 1,500 degrees and typically result in no visible exhaust other than heat waves. “Most anything that’s in there is destroyed.”

Though he acknowledged mercury vapors can be produced from fillings and are not burned away in the cremation process, he said the levels of mercury generated from a burning body are so insignificant his agency does not look for them in regular tests.

“There just isn’t enough mercury there to identify,” he said, stating opposition he has often encountered against crematoria “purely is a perception issue” rather than a matter of actual pollution hazards.

Winlock Mayor Lonnie J. Dowell said he has encountered similar statements while researching the topic, including the affects of specific crematoria in Longview and Tumwater, and argued against protesters in City Hall Friday for what he has seen as misinformation being spread around town.

“I fail to see the problem with emissions that people are talking about,” said Dowell, who had met with protesters led by Wong as they submitted a 363-signature petition signed by residents from the local area.

Dowell said, from what he has learned while researching crematoria, the fumes protesters continue to talk about are not an actual occurrence, stating he would very much be against a crematorium downtown if pollution was a threat.

“I’m not for it, I’m not against it,” he clarified of his official stance on the issue, stating he was instead frustrated by those who may be misleading the public.

Wong told Dowell the research she has conducted on the internet could not be wrong, stating she feels America is full of intelligent people who, when they see an inaccurate statement online, are compelled to correct the publisher and set the record straight. As such, she said she believes the information she has found could not be incorrect as news sources, in her opinion, are quick to correct errors brought to their attention.

A frustrated Dowell continued to argue the information being presented by protestors was not the entire truth, and both parties left City Hall insisting the other should conduct more
research into the matter.

So where are we now?

As far as the hearing, which had originally been for the purpose of allowing a conditional use permit for the crematorium to be established, Weeks said he does not have a date in mind for when a new hearing will be scheduled, stating he intends still to meet with residents and address their concerns.

“I’d like to have a dialogue,” he said, stating he has been taken off guard by this level of opposition, as other mortuary services his business has established throughout the state have not encountered similar protests.

“Their feelings are valid,” he did say of the anti-crematorium sentiments, stating his business does not “want to have hard feeling with anyone. We want to make sure we’re the best neighbor possible.”

Prior to the postponement of the hearing, Weeks said a crematorium would require additional permitting from the city and state on top of conditional use approval, and said at that time he would expect construction to begin sometime next year.

As of Saturday, he said he does not consider an extended timeline to be a loss, as he is still at the start of the process and did not intent to apply for permits elsewhere without first acquiring zoning approval.

As of Monday, Wong issued a statement saying she views the postponement of the hearing as a sign Weeks is “not giving up” and said, in an effort to help eliminate downtown Winlock as a location for a crematorium, she would be willing to purchase the proposed property from Weeks herself for $26,000, the price Weeks had paid according to county tax records.

When responding to Wong’s statement, Weeks said Monday he had not heard personally from her and, without doing so, did not feel comfortable commenting on her proposal.

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