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Molt

Clouds lay over the snow-covered Crazy Mountains to the west of Molt in 2007. 

The community of Molt continues to grapple with petroleum contamination of soil and groundwater that occurred decades ago.

More than 30 area residents gathered Wednesday night at the Molt Community Center to hear about the latest effort to clean up the contaminated soil and water. They met with representatives of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and Terracon Inc. of Billings, the consultant hired to fix the problems associated with the former Molt Bulk Plant.

The plant was owned by the Town & Country Supply Association, which hired Terracon. The plant, at 1 Wolfskill Ave. and Highway 302, consisted of a series of above-ground storage tanks, vehicle fill areas and pump areas.

The plant, on the west side of Wolfskill Avenue, was closed in the mid-1990s, but not before an above-ground gasoline spill happened. It was reportedly cleaned up in 1996, but nothing was done with the affected soil.

Terracon has done soil and groundwater testing since 1999. In 2001, it oversaw the removal of about 500 cubic yards of petroleum-tainted soil from the Bulk Plant site, replacing it with clean soil.

The Prairie Winds Café, owned by Jerry and Fran Urfer since 2000, sits on the east side of Wolfskill Road, across from the former plant. Before that, the building was owned for 33 years by Dwight Kepferle, who ran the Kepferle Mercantile.

The mercantile had one 500-gallon gasoline tank in front of the store and a second one installed near the southwest corner of the building. They were last used in 1992 and were removed in July 1994.

Soil contamination discovered during their removal was reported to the DEQ. The DEQ required soil testing, which, in 1997, led the agency to issue a No Current Corrective Action letter to the Kepferles, based on declining contamination levels.

A family named Krieger built a home on land adjacent to the northeast portion of the Bulk Plant in the late 1990s or early 2000s. A water well drilled at the site found contaminated water at about 30 feet below the surface.

Further testing after that also found contaminated groundwater on property where the Molt Elevator sits. The business is co-owned by Mike Hollenbeck and Jim Visser.

The Kriegers filed a lawsuit against Town and Country; Cenex, which supplied gas to the bulk plant, and the Kepferle Mercantile, which the grain elevator’s parent company joined in.

The Kriegers received a money settlement and Town and Country bought the house, Hollenbeck said.

“We took the money under the guise that the DEQ would push these other parties to clean it up,” Hollenbeck said. “Otherwise I would never have settled.”

Jerry Urfer said that when he and his wife bought the café, they assumed with the DEQ letter in hand, they wouldn’t have any further problems. Once the problems cropped up with the Krieger house, the DEQ reopened the Kepferle site and required investigation to determine the extent of soil contamination.

Work has been done since then to remove contaminated soil. Twice, the work required the café to close for a week or two, Urfer said.

“That was my frustration,” he said. “There was no reimbursement for the business to close, but we still had to pay for the lights and heat and we had to throw away a bunch of food.”

The couple has worked with JRB Environmental Consultants Inc. of Billings to deal with the property’s problems.

The Urfers decided to sell the café about four years ago. Jerry Urfer, who worked for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway for more than 30 years, was planning to retire.

But the environmental issues have caused potential buyers “to lose interest immediately,” he said. “So June 28, we’re just closing.”

Hollenbeck said attempts to sell his business have met the same resistance.

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“We can’t get financing to sell it or operate it in the condition that it’s in,” he said.

At Wednesday night’s meeting, Michael Bullock, of Terracon, explained what will happen this summer. The excavation will begin about July 22, and removing the contaminated soil will involve ripping up a portion of Wolfskill Road.

The dirt will be taken about four miles away to private property where it will be de-contaminated. When the road work is done, which should take about two weeks, the road will be rebuilt, Bullock said.

Bullock and Marla Stremcha, project manager for the DEQ’s Petroleum Technical Section, described what Stremcha called the first phase of the Molt project.

“After the soil excavation phase then the groundwater mediation phase will have to be implemented,” she said.

With the removal of the contaminated soil, some of the ground water will gradually be restored naturally, she said. At some point, additional work will be done to complete that process, she said.

Still at issue is which spill caused what damage. Dwight Kepferle has maintained that the problems the Kriegers suffered were not caused by his gas tanks.

The problem is complicated. But some people hope that excavation and testing this summer will shed light on the questions that remain.

It could help decide who will have to help pay for work that isn't covered by state money. The DEQ investigation won't close its investigation until the ground water is cleaned up.

Hollenbeck just wants to see the work finished.

"Last night was the first meeting since 2008," he said.

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General Assignment and Health Care Reporter

General assignment and healthcare reporter at The Billings Gazette.