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The Montana Red Cross is opening a shelter at a Miles City church Saturday after a vapor leak lead to the evacuation of an apartment building.

Residents had reported a strange smell and were getting headaches. The manager of the Lewis and Clark Apartments placed a vapor complaint with Montana Dakota Utilities on Oct. 25.

Representatives from the Department of Environmental Quality sent the National Guard Hazardous Materials Team to investigate. It was later confirmed there were vapors. Fifteen apartments were evacuated Oct. 26.

Tests were conducted after the initial report, including some at a nearby gas station.

DEQ representatives tested underground fuel tanks at the nearby Shortstop gas station, 16 N. Seventh St., and found that a portion of one tank failed a “leak and corrosion” protection test.

The DEQ revoked the operating permit for that portion of the tank. The other portion failed the corrosive protection test, but was not leaking. The operation permit for that portion of the tank is now suspended.

Both parts of the tank are now empty and are locked down. The gas station's other tank, which holds regular fuel, is still in operation. Lisa Peterson, DEQ public affairs coordinator, said the DEQ is still waiting on other test results before they can give a definitive cause for the vapors. The tests were expected sometime this week.

Cleanup at the Shortstop gas station could include removing all the underground storage tanks.

No enforcement actions have been taken, but Peterson said they could be in the future.

In the meantime, city officials are trying to figure out what to do with the displaced residents who could be out of their apartments until December.

“We are looking at least until Dec. 1, if not longer, to get them back in,” said Miles City Mayor Joe Whalen. “It comes at a bad time. There is limited housing in Miles City because of the pipeline activity in Eastern Montana, and the hotels and motels are full with hunters.”

Local residents have opened their homes to the evacuees, but only on a short-term basis. The Montana Red Cross initially set up a shelter at a local gymnasium that has since been closed.

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A new shelter opens Saturday at the First Baptist Church at 900 Palmer St.

“The families have run out of short term housing options,” said Ron Kopp, chief executive officer of the Montana Red Cross. “We typically don't have to keep shelters open this long, but we understand that some of the people displaced have special needs.

“We wanted to make sure there was a place where they would receive the care that they need.”

The DEQ is focusing on cleanup to get the residents back home. The plan is to mitigate the vapors in the apartment building, which includes a soil vapor extraction system and positive air pressure system. The equipment to carry that out will not be available until next week.

The drinking water in Miles City has not been affected by the leak. Possible groundwater contamination is still being investigated. Peterson said they do not yet know exactly how much gas leaked or how far it traveled.

Peterson said the DEQ has the funds to pay for the initial cleanup efforts, but other funding may come from the Petroleum Tank Release Compensation fund and the Shortstop owner.

Contact Chelsea Krotzer at ckrotzer@billingsgazette.com or 657-1392.

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Contact Chelsea Krotzer at ckrotzer@billingsgazette.com or 657-1392.

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