BILLINGS — The 855-acre Billings PCE state Superfund site could see more involvement and money for cleanup from the Environmental Protection Agency in the next few years after the Billings City Council gave the governor's office the thumbs up to ask the Billings site be placed on the EPA's national priorities list.
The council voted unanimously to send this letter to the governor's office in a Monday night meeting with no discussion. Billings Public Works Director Dave Mumford gave a presentation about the site and details about its placement on the priority list at a council meeting Nov. 4.
The state has no more money to continue remediation.
"If it comes on the National Priorities list, it allows EPA to take control of the site," Mumford said at the Nov. 4 meeting. "It would bring federal dollars in, it takes Billings and the state Department of Environmental Quality out of control of the site. It would be a federal site. But the state and us (city) would both be involved in how it’s dealt with, and in the meetings.”
Mumford said the chance is very good that the Billings site will be placed on the priority list. The state came to the city a few months back asking the city government to send the letter.
“It is my understanding that they already have a number for where we would be on the priorities list," Mumford said. "They just won’t release that until they know that the city of Billings and the state of Montana want them placed there.We have already been prioritized within their list system.”
Mumford said it would take one to two years for the EPA to start any testing or work on the site.
First discovered in 1991, two Billings laundromats had been leaching toxic chemicals tetrachloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE) into the ground water for years.
The issue comes when the chemicals turn to gas and permeate into people's homes, similar to radon. The gas gets in through foundation cracks, foundations without vapor barriers and basements with dirt floors.
Mumford said the Montana Department of Environmental Quality has found PCE levels in the ground water around the Big Sky Linen location at 47,000 micro grams per liter, and 17,090 micro grams per liter at the former Central Avenue Laundry site. The EPA says PCE should only be found at a concentration of 5 micro grams per liter in a water source.
Mumford said the contaminated water moves around underground overtime. The concentration of PCE in ground water lessens as you move away from the laundry locations.
Even though these chemicals are toxic, Mumford urges people to remain calm. He cited statistics saying exposure to PCE raises an average person's cancer risk by one-thousandth of one percent.
“We don’t want the public to become overly concerned that there is something toxic and people are going to start dying and having health issues," Mumford said. “The issue isn’t that someone is about to get cancer, that’s not the level these are at, but they are a concern.”
If the EPA takes control of the site, the agency would work with residents to protect their homes from the toxic gas's intrusion.
“It would allow them to come in with funding to assist with PCE gas extraction systems in the homes. It would give subsidies and assistance to those people to monitor it," Mumford said.
In 2007, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality excavated a portion of Central Avenue to remove contaminated soil. Mumford said similar clean up techniques could be used this go around, but the biggest thing it would provide is peace of mind.
"But the biggest thing is it would provide resources to the residents of Billings in that area to do something about fixing the cracks in their foundations, gas extraction, and other issues,” Mumford said.
If the EPA comes in to help, there is a chance that due to the site's size, and the constantly moving ground water, it may never be fully clean. Mumford said you would have to dig up all the 855 acres to fully clean up. Hundreds of acres that currently house businesses and homes.
“It would be ongoing as far as my understanding. Because you will always have it in the ground," Mumford said. "The soil is contaminated. You would have to dig up the whole 855 acres. So, it would be ongoing. They would stay with us indefinitely.”
The state would like to send its letter to the EPA requesting the Billings site's addition to the priorities list in the first week of December, according to Mumford.