Officials Say Vapors In Billings Deserve Superfund Designation

Jul 26, 2019

State and federal officials say an 855-acre area in central and downtown Billings should be considered for Superfund status due to indoor air quality contamination.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency trace the air contamination back to dry cleaning solvents common in the 1970s and 1980s at several local dry cleaners, like Big Sky Linen.

While drinking water is not a problem, Aimee Reynolds with the state DEQ said they’ve found contamination rising into the air inside structures.

“This site has some of the highest vapor intrusion levels I’ve seen in the state," Reynolds says.

She said they’ve found evidence of the chemical PCE in some buildings. Together with high levels of other chemicals like TCE, that could cause effects like confusion, nausea, and headaches over long exposure.

EPA and DEQ hosted a public meeting Thursday at Lewis and Clark Middle School, attended by about 80 people.

Many said own homes or are employed in the area of concern, like one woman who asked to remain anonymous because she’s worried about losing her job.

She spoke about her office, which is near the origin area of the contamination.

“It smelled like rotting fruit,” she said.

At first, she thought it was from gourds leftover from the fall.

“Well after that was gone, it turned into a real strong acetone smell and a real strong chemical smell.”

She said people have been feeling disoriented and getting headaches.

Anna Weidinger lives right in the middle of the plume and says she’s heard testing for chemicals costs about the same as air mitigation, somewhere in the $2,000 dollar ballpark.

“So it’s where you want to put your money but either way if you don’t have the money to do the testing or remediation, I don’t know what folks are supposed to do. And I don’t know many people who have that just hanging out, so.”

Officials says mitigation systems are pretty effective as long as they’re kept on consistently. But they also say the long-term solution is to address the contamination itself.

To do that, they propose to apply for the National Priorities List, which only opened up to vapor intrusion as a criterion for listing in the last few years.

A place on the list could provide the state with extra funding and resources for cleanup in the area.

The region has been a state Superfund site since 1992. The federal government investigated through the 1990s and did cleanup in 2008, but follow-up showed that more decontamination is necessary.

Officials are confident about earning a place on the National Priorities List with the governor’s endorsement and the public’s support. They say the process may kick off next year.