By Ron VandenBoom
A layer of brown-colored diesel about one-quarter of an inch thick floats on the top a jar of water Wayne Vaught collected from his basement in the Second Chance Fine Consignments building in June 1998.
Vaught discovered the smelly and potentially hazardous product while digging a trench for a tile system he hoped to install.
The closer I dug to the north, the worse the smell became, Vaught said. I finally had to quit. I couldnt stand it any more.
Collecting samples of what Vaught describes as the disgusting smelly product was just the first step that would lead Vaught on a heart-wrenching journey of discovery and litigation.
Vaught sent a sample of the substance hed collected to Energy Laboratorys in Billings for analysis. He was surprised to learn the samples contained diesel fuel.
Vaught was now aware of what the substance was and suspected the contamination came from the BNSF Railroad yard that lies just north of Vaughts building. He said he called to see what they intended to do about the problem.
Representatives from BNSF arrived on Wednesday, July 5, 1998, and took pictures and soil samples from Vaughts basement. According to the owner of Second Chance, Noni Baker, they stayed for about 20 minutes and left saying the samples would be sent to a lab in Texas for analysis.
Then in September, they returned with some engineers who, after examining the problem, stated that they would come up with a plan for solving the problem, Baker said.
Baker added that no plan has ever been received and they have heard nothing more from them.
Vaught turned to Havre lawyer Ted Thompson who stepped in to help negotiate with the railroad. After a year of fruitless effort, on June 24, 1999, Vaught brought suit against the BNSF.
Weve worked seven days a week, 90 zillion hours a day, Baker said. We live here, its our home. We try to build a business up so that someday well have a retirement. ... Bakers voice fades out in a show of resignation and disgust over what has happened.
The problem encountered by Vaught is not unique to the Second Chance building. According to tests ordered completed by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), all of the buildings in the 300 block of First Street have some degree of contamination.
Tests were conducted in Master Sports, Second Chance Fine Consignments, Kleen Kut Barber Shop, Pizza Pro, and the Iron Horse Restaurant/Park Hotel, by Kennedy/Jenks Consultants on March 30 and May 25, 1999.
The tests were conducted, at least in part, due to prompting from Vaught, said Doug Martin, DEQ project manager for the Havre facility. Martin said the tests were in response to one of the business owners going into his basement and finding diesel.
In addition to soil samples, air monitoring also was conducted at the locations to determine whether organic chemicals associated with diesel fuel in the soil were volatizing and migrating through unpaved floors into the commercial buildings. The purpose of the air sampling was to assess the potential for human exposure from organic vapors originating from diesel fuel in the soil.
Air samples also were taken outside of the buildings to provide a comparison of outside air with indoor concentrations.
Ed. note: Part two of this report will run tomorrow, providing the analytical information pertaining to the investigation and testing.