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Central cleanup, July 10, 2008

Pieces of steel were driven into the ground to create a containment wall around a plume of dry cleaning solvent in July 2008 in Billings.

Recent public meetings on two separate Yellowstone County water problems spotlighted the imperative of keeping groundwater clean.

In Worden, elevated levels of nitrates in the local water district supply make that water unsafe for babies under six months of age. Families with infants are being supplied with bottled water.

The source of contamination remains under investigation. State experts and leaders of the Worden Ballantine Yellowstone County Water District have determined that the nitrate contamination is in the system's irrigation collector drain south of town, which supplies most of the drinking water. The district gets some of its water from a 40-foot-deep well north of town and that source isn't contaminated.

The irrigation collector drain was originally installed to remove shallow groundwater from a field to lower the water table, allowing crops to be grown, according to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

Other Montana communities have had their water sources exceed the nitrate maximum contaminant level, according to Karen Ogden, DEQ public information officer who responded to Gazette questions. Statewide, sources of nitrate contamination in groundwater are generally fertilizer, animal manure or human sewage and on occasion, could be from natural causes. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact source of nitrate contamination in groundwater. For the Worden Ballantine Yellowstone irrigation collector drain, "it could be a combination of fertilizer and animal manure with minimum human sewage contribution."

Water system loans

Asked how other Montana communities have resolved similar problems, Ogden responded in an email: "Some have discontinued use of the water source with high nitrate levels and gone to other water sources. However, this could be challenging in the Worden-Ballantine area. Another option is to keep the high nitrate water source and blend it with a low nitrate source to reduce the overall concentration or treat the water with reverse osmosis or ion exchange to lower the nitrate concentration to acceptable levels."

If the water district needs to make changes to reduce nitrate levels, it can get help from the state. DEQ administers the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund that can provide low-interest loans and sometimes grants to fund drinking water projects. The Worden district tapped this type of loan in the mid-2000s to drill its well and upgrade the chlorination system. The district is eligible to apply for funding to finance upgrades to their drinking water system.

Dry cleaning solvent

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Contrast the prompt and informative response of the DEQ and local water district to the Worden problem with the handling of the long-running pollution under part of central Billings. A four-mile plume of toxic dry cleaning solvents has contaminated groundwater for 30 years or more. 

Some residents and people who work above the plume complained of headaches, disorientation and other symptoms they believe are caused by toxic vapors, Gazette reporter Tom Lutey told readers. They spoke up at a July 25 public meeting at Lewis and Clark Middle School, but workers declined to give their names, saying they feared losing their jobs.

Residents have reported what appears to be high incidence of cancer in the plume neighborhood.

The plume stretches underground over 855 surface acres from Mountview Cemetery east nearly to Public Auction Yards on First Avenue South. The state of Montana designated the plume a Superfund site in 1992 and the EPA sued Big Sky Linen in 2014 in an attempt to recover $10 million in cleanup costs. The business ended up paying $1.5 million.

There is currently no help for property owners to seal the toxic vapor out of their homes or businesses, a DEQ representative told state Rep. Emma Kerr-Carpenter.

An EPA representative said the site is a candidate for the federal Superfund priority list, which could provide money for more tests and cleanup.

Comments at the middle school public meeting indicated that testing has not been offered to all homeowners in the area and there has been no offer of help for mitigating the vapors. Sealing up a home could cost $2,000, not including the cost of testing.

Twenty-seven years after the state officially recognized this pollution in a densely populated neighborhood and five years after the federal government sued to hold a polluter accountable, citizens are still waiting for answers. They are still worried about illnesses that may be related to the poison in groundwater under their property.

Billings residents shouldn't have to wait any more. The DEQ should work with the EPA to offer assistance in testing structures and sealing our harmful vapors. We call on Gov. Steve Bullock to direct the DEQ to approach mitigation of the plume with a sense of urgency that has been sadly lacking for many, many years.

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