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EPA testing underway in key step to Billings Superfund site cleanup

Billings EPA canisters tree
Posted at 5:37 PM, Apr 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-21 19:37:00-04

BILLINGS — Bridget Williams and her team have been visiting Billings parks a lot lately.

The group brings large metal canisters into parks across the city and collects them 24 hours later to gather air samples. The project is funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and is part of its investigation into a Billings Superfund site trying to determine the extent of harmful tetrachloroethylene (PCE) vapors in the atmosphere and soil.

Their latest recovery was at South Park Thursday.

"We’re trying to get a good sample of what regular air would look like," Williams, an EPA Remedial Superfund Project Manager, said. "Air that doesn’t have contaminated solvents in it. Ideally, this will be a clean sample."

Billings Superfund site
The PCE Superfund site spans 855 acres between central and downtown Billings.

South Park falls outside of the 850-acre Superfund site that spans three miles of downtown and central Billings. So Williams hopes the California lab that analyzes these containers will give her the all-clear.

The tests she’s really focused on are in people’s homes throughout the affected area.

"We’ve been receiving lots of phone calls from citizens, volunteering their homes to be tested," Williams said.

Billings EPA canisters ground
Metal canisters have been placed across Billings parks by the EPA to collect air samples as part of an investigation into the city's Superfund site.

"This is a real thing that will not cost any residents a dime, and will make a real difference long-term," added Billings City Council member Danny Choriki.

The area falls mainly within Choriki’s Ward 3, including the original 1960's laundromat site on Central Avenue and Seventh Street West where the PCE seeped into the ground. This first session has had plenty of volunteers.

"Anytime when you’ve got something coming out of the ground that could cause problems with your kidney, liver, possibly cancers, a number of people are very concerned," Choriki said. "One person was getting constant headaches, and he was very close to the center of the site, so he decided he had to move."

Williams says they’ll test 150 more this summer. That’s not enough data to complete the project, but after nearly 30 years of concern, she says they can’t wait anymore. If they find PCE readings in homes, the solution is one many homeowners are familiar with.

"It's as simple as installing a radon mitigation system," Williams said. "The solvent chemicals that are potentially coming up through the ground into people's homes, it's exactly like radon."

"Knowing that there is a proven track of something very similar being done, and very commercially affordable, I think does ease some people’s minds," Choriki added.

Billings EPA canisters
Signs warn people not to touch metal canisters places in parks across Billings by the EPA because of ongoing air sample collections in an investigation into the Billings Superfund site.

The Superfund delegation means the cleanup will be federally funded. For Choriki and residents, it more importantly means these four words.

"The end is near.”