What happens when contaminants from an oil refinery and a timber treatment plant are mixed in a residential area near a river? Thanks to an accidental testing ground in unincorporated Evergreen east of Kalispell, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will soon find out.
The site lies in part of the Flathead Valley that hasn’t been blessed by the growth boom. Nearby residents mostly rent the houses and mobile homes in which they live. They have the Stillwater River in their backyard and a Superfund site in the front, though when the Independent spoke with five homeowners living within 50 yards of the site, none were aware of the Superfund site’s existence. The DEQ plans to notify them soon.
The site, historically polluted by defunct oil refineries and timber treatment operations, encompasses three distinct plots of land owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), Swank Construction, and the state of Montana.
Investigation of clean-up needs alone is expected to cost $1.25 million. Normally, the respective site owners would be responsible for the investigation and cleanup, but laws passed during the 2005 legislative session allow DEQ to foot the initial bill so that all three sites can be considered simultaneously, with an eye toward the cross-site combination of contaminants.
Once the investigation is complete, its cost, and instructions for remediation, will be doled out to responsible parties, including the current owners. BNSF, according to Moriah Bucy, the DEQ specialist handling the investigation, expects its portion of the cleanup to cost $10 million. Neither Bucy nor the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), which manages the state-owned portion of the site, was willing to estimate the cost to clean the state’s portion.
Pollution of the DNRC’s land began in the 1930s, when Reliance Refinery operated there. The refinery got behind on its taxes and its land was ultimately deeded to Montana and managed by the DNRC, which allowed the refinery to continue operations until 1968. During that time, waste from the refinery, referred to as “sludge” in DEQ reports, was stored in leaky above-ground tanks or otherwise disposed of onsite. According to Bucy, site contamination also occurred when the refinery, scrambling for space, stored excess petroleum product behind earthen dikes on the site. As a result, the ground soaked up lead, petroleum hydrocarbons and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons. Lead is known to cause birth defects, including brain damage. Petroleum hydrocarbons and PAHs can cause anything from headaches to paralysis and death.
As if that weren’t enough pollution for one site, nearby Kalispell Pole and Timber (KPT) used the Reliance property to store wood poles after refinery operations ceased in 1968. Those poles left behind pentachlorophenol (PCP), a wood preservative known to cause damage to the central nervous system, kidneys, liver and reproductive organs. The site is also contaminated with dioxins and furans which can cause cancer and reproductive problems.
The Environmental Protection Agency put a fence around the Reliance site in 1988, following reports that children were playing in the sludge pits. Even now, black, oily sludge pits can be seen just a few feet inside the fence, and black goo oozes from the ground several feet outside the fenced area on its northeast side. Neighborhood homes sit just 50 yards from the fenced, and unfenced, sludge. Gaps at the bottom of the fence are big enough for dogs or children to crawl through.
The poles stored on state land were manufactured next door at the BNSF site, where KPT rented land from the railway. While drippings from the poles themselves caused some of the contamination, the majority came from the vats in which the poles were dipped. Those vats, which were left uncovered, foamed over and spilled onto the ground during heavy rainstorms, according to DEQ documents. Such spillovers occurred until 1990, when KPT went out of business.
The Yale Oil Refinery, a third piece of the Superfund puzzle, was cleaned up by the Exxon corporation in 1993, an effort believed to have been mostly successful, though traces of phenols, a class of chemicals known to be harmful to aquatic life, were found there in 1995, the date of the last sampling. Kalispell Partners LLC currently owns this property.
Due to a high water table in the area, the chemicals from all these operations have been mixing underground for years.
Bucy says it’s not known at this time if contaminants from these sites have made their way into the Stillwater River, which drains into Flathead Lake, or if drinking water has been affected. According to her, nearby homes began connecting to Kalispell city water in 1990, and by 1998 all homes near the site had switched to city water.
The individual sites have previously been studied separately, but according to a July 11 DEQ press release, those studies “were limited in scope and did not address all areas of concern.” DEQ has been trying to hammer out an agreement to investigate all three sites in aggregate for the last 10 years, but was unable to do so without the legislation passed this year.
Bucy expects it will be another two years before the investigation is finished, the extent of the contamination is known, and cleanup can begin.