Airborne contaminants from a downtown Billings state Superfund site will be the focus of a community meeting with state and federal environmental experts Thursday.
Testing results have shown that solvents from old dry cleaning businesses in central and downtown Billings are evaporating into the air at several locations above the 855-acre plume of tetrachloroethylene, trichloroethylene and other compounds. The vapors typically rise into buildings through foundation cracks and other holes.
The vapor can be cancerous. Residents in the affected area have told researchers that incidents of cancer seem high within the plume, were the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has collected air samples at 49 homes and commercial buildings. Those test results will be shared with the building’s owners.
EPA and state Department of Environmental Quality officials want to talk to the community about options for dealing with the building-trapped vapors and cleaning up the remaining ground pollutants. The site could be placed on the EPA national priorities list, DEQ spokeswoman Karen Ogden said, but public input is needed.
The meeting is July 25 at Lewis and Clark Middle School from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
The solvents were popular at dry cleaners into the 1980s. They were great spot removers, but also good at dissolving seals in public sewer systems, which is where some dry cleaners dumped their waste.
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“A lot of times what we see at these dry cleaning spots is contamination that comes from 1980 and before,” said Mike Gipson, DEQ state Superfund project officer. “A lot of times the machines would be connected to sanitary sewer.”
It doesn’t take a lot of chlorinated solvent to get into the ground, where often the solvents are highly concentrated near a sewer pipe seal, Gipson said.
The contamination area stretches from Mountview Cemetery along Central Avenue two miles east, almost to the Public Auction Yards. There are three dry cleaning sites in the 855-acre footprint. Central Avenue Laundry anchors the west edge of the plume. Big Sky Linen Supply off of Eighth Street West and the former Rex Linen site near First Avenue South and South 28th Street are the other known sources of solvent. There is a fourth unknown source of solvent five blocks east of the former Rex Linen site.
In 2014, the EPA sued Big Sky Linen Supply, attempting to recover $10 million in cleanup costs. The business couldn't cover the bill, but agreed to pay a principle amount of $825,000, plus $705,000 related to insurance settlements.
Montana first recognized the area as a state Superfund site in 1992. It’s been long enough, Gipson said, that some people in the area might not be aware of the hazard.
Even in 2006, the Superfund site was largely forgotten.