By Ron VandenBoom
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) responded to complaints concerning diesel contamination in the basement of Second Chance Fine Consignments in February 1999 by ordering BNSF to collect and analyze soil and air samples from five downtown Havre businesses.
Soil samples were collected for visual observations and field screening by Kennedy/Jenks Consultants from Master Sports, Second Chance, Kleen Kut Barber Shop, Pizza Pro, and the Iron Horse Restaurant/Park Hotel on March 30 and May 25, 1999. Four soil samples were also collected for laboratory analysis from three borings in the basement of Second Chance.
The samples were packed in ice coolers and hand delivered to Alpine Analytical, Inc., in Helena for laboratory analysis. The samples were tested for volatile petroleum hydrocarbons (VPH), extractable petroleum hydrocarbons (EPH), polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes (BTEX), and Methyl-tert-butyl ether (MTBE), using EPA and DEQ approved methods.
Air samples were also packed in ice containers and sent to Data Chem Laboratory in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The analysis indicated the presence of petroleum in the soil taken from the Iron Horse Restaurant/Park Hotel, Pizza Pro, and Second Chance. The Second Chance store contained detectable concentrations of gasoline range organics (GRO) and diesel range organics (DRO).
Concentrations of the hydrocarbons were greater in the northern most samples taken than in the southern most samples, the report found.
Analysis of air samples taken from Second Chance and Pizza Pro, showed the first floor DRO and GRO concentrations were "similar to, but slightly greater than basement concentrations." The Iron Horse Restaurant/Park Hotel, and Second Chance samples also showed "concentrations similar to but slightly greater than sidewalk concentrations."
Despite confirmations by laboratory analyses that GRO and DRO contamination does exist in all of the downtown locations tested, the ultimate question is how bad is the contamination and is it harmful.
The Havre Daily News took the findings to Gregg Hester, assistant professor of environmental quality at MSU-Northern for interpretation. Hester has followed the issue of diesel contamination in the BNSF railroad yard from the beginning of DEQ involvement in the BNSF cleanup.
"In my opinion, this company (Kennedy/Jenks) is certainly highly qualified and has an excellent track record in looking at these kinds of things," Hester said. "And what they found essentially was that the various types of hydrocarbons which are characteristic of diesel fuel, kerosene, other products like that ... were in such tiny quantities that they really are not a significant health threat."
Hester explained that the standards for determining what is considered safe is based on the maximum contaminant level (MCL). The MCL is based on what the scientific community believes will cause cancer in one person in a million if a million people are exposed to the same contaminated environment over a lifetime, or a period of about 40 years.
"So it's a real safe standard in general," Hester said.
Hester emphasized that "there's no such thing in toxicology as absolutely safe."
He added that with the kinds of levels detected in the samples, "I think that it's highly unlikely that it's going to present any problems.
"I'll qualify that by saying 'as long as they don't have any preexisting conditions or health problems already,'" Hester said.
Hester's analytical view of the contamination are offset by his sympathy for those living and working in the First Street buildings.
"I know they're a nuisance, Hester said, referring to the contamination, "and I know that it's something that nobody wants to put up with -- the odors and the thought in the back of your mind that maybe you're in an environment that's going to make you sick. But there are a lot of chemicals that we come in contact with every day in a variety of ways that are probably just as much of a concern as this. It obviously is something that should be addressed. Nobody wants to be around that kind of stuff if they don't have to be."
Ed. note: This is the second part of a three part series investigating the concerns over diesel fuel found in the buildings in downtown Havre. Part one was published Thursday. The final installment will run in Friday's Weekend Edition.