By Ron VandenBoom
The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has been monitoring efforts by BNSF to clean up and prevent further diesel fuel contamination in its Havre yard since 1986.
The contamination is suspected by DEQ to have come mostly from leaking storage tanks and transfer lines located under BNSF's Havre facility.
The BNSF has installed more than 75 test wells, or monitoring wells, that monitor what the DEQ estimates to be between 500,000 and 1.5 million gallons of fuel that have seeped into the aquifer beneath and around the Havre yard.
Pumping wells installed by BNSF have so far removed more than 120,000 gallons of fuel from the contaminated ground and monitoring wells are checked approximately every six months to continue assessing the extent of the contamination.
According to Doug Martin, DEQ project manager for the BNSF cleanup operation, it is hard to estimate how long it might take for current cleanup methods to correct the contamination problem, but during an earlier public meeting held by the DEQ, Martin estimated it could take 200 years for a combination of man-made efforts and natural degradation to eliminate the problem.
Three primary areas of contamination have determined by Kennedy/Jinks Consultants and BNSF in and around the Havre yard.
The commercial buildings between Third Avenue and Forth Avenue on First Street are all located within the middle area of contamination that the DEQ suspects was caused by fueling and storage facilities located just to the northwest of the old freight house east of the depot.
Complaints of diesel being located in the Second Chance building prompted the DEQ to order additional monitoring wells be installed along First Street between Third and Fourth Avenues in late October.
"It is part of the ongoing phase two of the remedial investigation," Martin said at the time the holes were being drilled for placement of the wells.
Low concentrations of diesel range organics (DROs) found in samples taken from the Second Chance building and other businesses in the block are below the standards that require DEQ mandating corrective action on the part of BNSF, Martin said in a telephone interview after the test results were finished.
Martin explained that statutory requirements dictate that unless the contamination meets certain preestablished guidelines there is nothing the DEQ can do legally to force the BNSF to clean it up.
The only recourse left for people like Wayne Vought, the owner of the Second Chance building, is to go after the BNSF alone.
Vought is not happy about the prospects of tackling a giant like BNSF but said he feels he has no other choice.
Vought said he purchased the property in 1997 using his life savings, everything he had for collateral, and was unaware at the time the building rested on contaminated soil.
According to Tom Wolfe, business loan officer for Norwest Bank in Havre, banks will generally not lend money to persons wanting to buy contaminated property.
"It is something that a lender would have to look at very close," Wolfe said. "We would have to consider all of the potential impact."
Banks in general will shy away from lending money to people wanting to buy contaminated property because, in the event of a default on the part of the buyer, the bank ends up owning contaminated property and is responsible for the cleanup or any monetary recovery.
Wolfe agreed that banks do not like to take the risk that they will be responsible for cleanup bills in the case of a default.
Wolfe also agreed that contaminated property is also very difficult to sell once it is owned.
Vought, and the other business owners, are the landlords of contaminated property. They are unable to sell because nobody wants to own contaminated property and no banks want to lend money on property that they may have to clean up.