A chemical spill in Billings could become a top priority for the Environmental Protection Agency, opening doors for federal funds and expertise to help clean up the site.
An 855-acre plume of contaminated groundwater between central and downtown Billings has spent nearly three decades as a state Superfund site. On Monday, the EPA proposed adding the site to its Superfund program now that cleanup and study of the spill have exhausted local resources.
“Federal dollars will allow for a more comprehensive investigation, more sampling and analysis, along with putting together a feasibility study of options,” said Jennifer Chergo with the office of communication and public involvement with the EPA.
In 1993, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality completed its first assessment of the area. Within the plume, three dry cleaning businesses had been using the solvent tetrachloroethylene, otherwise known as PCE. Further testing showed PCE and other compounds evaporating into the air of homes and businesses. The contaminated site encompasses about three miles, and stretches from Mountview Cemetery along Central Avenue two miles east, nearly reaching the Public Auction Yards.
Historically popular with dry cleaners, PCE can be used as both a fabric cleaner and degreasing agent for metals. Inside the contaminated area sits Central Avenue Laundry at its western edge, Big Sky Linen about four blocks to the east and the former Rex Linen near First Avenue South and South 28th. Tests showed all three, along with a fourth unknown source five blocks east of the former Rex Linen site, to be the cause of the PCE spill.
According to the EPA, chlorinated solvents like PCE vaporize from groundwater and accumulate indoors. Those breathing the contaminated air can have the immediate consequence of nausea, as well as long-term illnesses like kidney and liver damage. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a part of the World Health Organization, has classified PCE as probably cancerous for humans.
The Billings Gazette reported that in 2014 Big Sky Linen faced a $10 million lawsuit from the EPA to cover the cost of cleanup. The business agreed to pay $1.53 million in cleanup and insurance settlement costs.
For years, local and state officials have worked to add the site to the EPA’s Superfund program, with The Gazette reporting in 2019 that measures to secure homes through sealing basement cracks and improving ventilation could cost homeowners in the area about $2,000.
Writing on behalf of the City of Billings in November 2019, Mayor Bill Cole wrote a letter to both Gov. Steve Bullock’s office and the director of the Montana DEQ requesting that the site be added to the EPA’s National Priorities List. Along with limited resources available for the city and state to address the contamination, Cole wrote that the site would make the list due to the number of homes and businesses potentially impacted by PCE vapor.
“The EPA and DEQ have been looking at this site for a long, long time. Together, the agencies determined that we’d come to a place where adding it as a Superfund site would be the best step forward. … There’s already been a lot done, a lot of data collected over the years, so we wouldn’t be starting from scratch,” Chergo said.
Starting Thursday, Billings residents will have 60 days to review the proposal and offer comments to the EPA. Chergo said the agency is looking for any significant information that would cause it to reconsider adding the site to its National Priorities List. A link will be available on the site’s EPA web page.
If accepted, the site will join 17 others across the state of Montana on the EPA’s National Priorities List. Those include the massive cleanups of asbestos particles in the air of Libby, and the removal of heavy metals in the Silver Bow Creek and Butte areas due to mining operations.
Closer to home, groundwater in Lockwood became contaminated with benzene and chlorinated solvents used to clean truck trailers, affecting local supply wells. The 580-acre site was added to the Superfund program in May 2000, with cleanup of the soil in the area still ongoing.