Lane County Historical Photographic Negatives Poised For Incineration

May 28, 2014

Many families preserve their histories by keeping photographs from the distant past.   But what most don’t realize is that many, if not most, photographic negatives produced before 1950 are now considered hazardous waste.   

An image from a cellulose nitrate negative at the Land County Historical Society. "Veterans of the 65th Regiment returning to Eugene after World War I. View looking north on Willamette Street, Eugene, Skinner Butte in background."
Credit Chester Stevenson/Lane County Historical Society

Thursday, five 55-gallon drums containing thousands of these negatives are leaving Lane County.  They’re being shipped to Utah to be incinerated at a specialized haz-mat facility.  The negatives were part of the collection of the Lane County Historical Society – and contained iconic images of old Eugene and the broader community.  

 Willamette Street on March 1, 1919.  Confetti floats like snow in the air and crowds line the street to welcome the 65th Regiment home after World War I.  The image was captured by photographer Chester Stevenson and his collection was eventually passed on to Lane County Historical Society.

 Roffe:  “We had all these negatives in cardboard boxes in the far corner of the museum, a cinder block area.  As far away from people as we could get them.”

Cheryl Roffe, Lane County Historical Society Collections Manager and Research Librarian.
Credit Jes Burns

 It’s an unusual way for Collections Manager Cheryl Roffe to handle such a rich historical resource, until you understand what the photo negatives are made of: cellulose nitrate.

 Roffe: “Cellulose is vegetable fibers, usually cotton treated with nitric acid.  That’s the same substances used in dynamite, fireworks and other explosives. And so the film was, in fact, very combustible.”

 as they age, they become more toxic and flammable. Nitrate negatives are difficult to identify, and until around 2006, Roffe didn’t know what to look for.  

 Roffe: “We knew that we had some film.  But when I discovered that we had 36 boxes – and I mean large boxes – in the archive where people worked regularly, I was horrified.”

Cellulose nitrate negative image of Villard Hall on the University of Oregon campus around 1927.
Credit Chester Stevenson/Lane County Historical Society

 In many ways, saying nitrate negatives are flammable is an understatement.  The material can actually self-combust at about 104 degrees.  this could be problematic for the Lane County museum and Archive.

 Roffe: “We have no cooling system.  In the summer, we’re on the southwest side, it can get up to 90 degrees in here.  So it was a little too close for comfort.”

 Hundreds of people have died in cellulose nitrate fires over the years, and countless photos and films have been lost.   The Historical Society needed a solution.  It couldn’t afford to build the explosion-proof freezers necessary to preserve the negatives, and it couldn’t find another institution willing to store them.  The only way Roffe could guarantee safety was to dispose of the lot.

 That’s where Chad Ficek comes into the story.  He’s a Special Waste Analyst for Lane County.  

 Ficek: “Nitrate film isn’t something we’ve dealt with in the past.”

Chad Ficek, Special Waste Analyst for Lane County, stand by drums full of cellulose nitrate negatives.
Credit Jes Burns

 Ficek realized the negatives would have to be packed up and shipped to an incinerator in Utah.  Ficek and his team dressed in white chemical-resistant jumpsuits and joined Roffe and her team, wearing only protective gloves, for a five hour session.

 Roffe: “Actually it was fun.  People were talking and laughing…”

 Ficek: “The most tedious thing we did was actually take the negatives out of their protective sleeves.  Some of those came out relatively quickly.  It was pretty easy to remove them.  Some it was actually like removing a single negative from a single envelope.  It doesn’t sound too bad, but there were 20,000 negatives.”

 Then Chad Ficek says the negatives had to be packed for travel.

 Ficek: “So here the drums are here.”

 The rotten-sweet smell of the glenwood dump occasionally blows through the Lane County Hazardous Waste Collection Center.  here, Ficek walks up to a line of 55-gallon drums and pats them affectionately.  Inside each of the drums is a 30-gallon blue plastic barrel. he pulls a spare down off a nearby crate.

 Ficek: “These are the exact ones we were using there.”
 Each blue barrel is allowed to hold only about 100 pounds of negatives.  Then those are covered with about 6 gallons of water.  

 Ficek: “Get enough water to cover that, then place the 30 gallon container inside the 55 gallon container.  Pour the vermiculite around that to be able to keep the inner container from sloshing around or anything else.  Then seal up the outer container.  Put all the appropriate DOT shipping labels on it.  And now it’s awaiting shipment.”
 Roffe: “I have to say, I have become very attached to those negatives working with them over the years.  It was very hard for me to destroy them.”

Barrels of hazardous cellulose nitrate negatives set to be shipped for incineration in Utah.
Credit Jes Burns

 Cheryl Roffe says just because the negatives are gone, doesn’t mean the images are lost.  The Lane County Historical Society has spent four years digitizing the cellulose nitrate collection and creating several backups. 

 Roffe: “We’re trusting in technology.  I think we have a pretty accurate representation of the original information on most of those negatives.  But, if anything happens to the storage hard drives, or the CDs, we’re out of luck.  We’ve lost that image.”

 Though consider, it might be better to have a hard drive fail, than to have the entire Lane County Historical Museum go up in an inferno of cellulose nitrate.  

 Click here to search the Lane County Historical Society online photo archive.  Archive includes cellulose nitrate images, some of which have catalog numbers beginning with "KE" or "CS."