Sunday, June 16, 2024

16 years after buying a slice of paradise, Columbia Heights family learns home is on a toxic site

Hungry Horse News | May 21, 2024 12:00 AM

When the Sterling family bought their home in Columbia Heights in 2008 they figured they had a little bit of paradise.

They had a little pond in the backyard where the deer grazed with an expansive view of Columbia Mountain. The lot was big enough to where they had planned to put in rental cabins for extra income.

But what Luke and Leslie Sterling didn’t know up until a few weeks ago was that the soil in their yard was contaminated with dioxin, a known carcinogen and what the Environmental Protection Agency calls a persistent organic pollutant, meaning it takes a long time to break down once in the environment. Tests done by an EPA contractor in October 2023 show that the Sterlings have levels of dioxins/furans (furans are another toxic substance) at about 111 nanograms/kilogram in the soil. 

As a comparison, the background level in Montana is about 3.74 ng/kg according to a state Department of Environmental Quality study in 2011 (dioxin can occur naturally, most notably from wildfires).

The Sterling’s home actually isn’t the “hot spot” on the site. 

Other tests show that soil samples near Gordon Avenue homes and the God’s 10 display have as high as 2,234 ng/kg at one site and another site had as high as 2,620 ng/kg. The contaminants came from the former Beaver Wood Products post and pole treatment site, a 20-acre parcel that made and sold poles soaked in chemicals to keep them from rotting from the 1950s to the 1990s.

In the early 2000s the site was slated for cleanup and listed as a state of Montana Superfund site, but not a federal Superfund site. 

Still, the EPA had the expertise and oversaw the cleanup, which saw, according to a Sept. 7, 2000 story in the Hungry Horse News, agency contractors treat about 40,000 cubic yards of soil contaminated with pentachlorophenol, a wood preservative and known carcinogen.

The soil was spread out on a 1-acre pad and treated with fertilizer in a bioremediation process that encouraged bacteria and fungus to grow and break the chemical down into an inert substance, the EPA said at the time. The contamination had actually been found about 10 years prior and a cap was put on it, but it failed. 

The EPA, with cooperation from the state, decided to take immediate action at the time because the preservative was found at a depth of about 70 feet and was approaching the water table.

After the bioremediation, the waste was then consolidated and capped, again.

The Sterling’s claim they were never notified about any of this until years after they bought their home. They maintain their home shouldn’t have been built in the first place. 

“There was never supposed to be a house here,” Luke Sterling said.

The parcel used to be one contiguous 20 acres, but was subdivided over the years, including the residential lot the Sterling home sits on. Deed restrictions were placed on the capped portions of the property according to a 2007 agreement between the EPA and Richard and Loretta Grosswiler, who were the owners of the property at the time.

“The capped areas shall not be used for development or residential purposes,” the signed agreement stated. But there’s the rub: The Sterlings’ home is located on what was called a “Land Treatment Unit” not a capped area. 

Thus, there was no deed restriction, the EPA said in an email to the Hungry Horse News earlier this month.

“The (institutional control) did not apply to the land treatment unit area which now includes a residential property,” EPA spokesperson Katherine Jenkins said.

But the lined land treatment unit, where the Sterling’s home is located, was the very place where contaminated dirt was treated, the EPA concedes.

“A lined land treatment unit with buffer soils was constructed on the former Beaver Wood Products property where contaminated material from the site was 'bioremediated' over the course of several years in a fenced enclosure to reduce PCP concentrations to below industrial screening levels,” the EPA said. 

After the treatment, “closeout of this area consisted of moving remaining treated soils to the south pit, sampling the buffer soil (under treated soils, but above the LTU liner), removing the liner, re-grading the area, removing fences, and capping the area with six inches of imported soil.”   

Other portions of the property, including one owned by Reclaim 360, also did not have deed restrictions.

Deed restrictions or not, the Sterlings claim their home is now worthless. They tried to sell, but with the EPA’s recent test results, it’s impossible.

Luke Sterling said after a life of good health, he’s been experiencing stomach problems. One bout lasted 32 days and he went from 165 pounds to 128 pounds. 

“Every time I touch that dirt, I get sick,” he said.

Family pets have also suffered. Leslie Luke got a Conure, a bird like a parakeet that’s supposed to live decades. It died in months, she said. Their dog died of lymphoma, a type of cancer, after four years.

They also wonder why it took so long to learn of the contamination. The EPA admits in email to the Hungry Horse News that it learned that a house had been built on the land treatment unit back in 2016, when the state did a five-year review of the site and, in turn, alerted the EPA.

Meanwhile, the Sterlings had already been living there eight years and would wait another eight years before getting the alarming test results.

But the EPA claims dioxin was not a primary concern when it first did the cleanup back in the early 2000s.

“Dioxin was not the primary contaminant of concern at the site during the original EPA removal action, and screening levels for dioxin were modified and lowered by EPA after a reassessment in 2012, well after the removal action concluded and the BWP property was subdivided,” the EPA said.

But the EPA knew about dioxin in 2000, when the cleanup first began. In a Hungry Horse News story at the time, then project manager Jim Knoy said the cleanup plan may or may not remove dioxins.

“The soil will be tested next spring to see if that can be accomplished,” the story noted.

The Sterlings are hoping to hire legal counsel in the matter, but they don’t have funds to hire and retain an attorney, they said.

They have set up a Go Fund Me account at: Jenkins said the EPA is considering further cleanup of the site — provided landowners cooperate, and is also considering placing it on the federal National Priorities List, which would make it a formal federal Superfund site, like the Columbia Falls Aluminum Co.

The EPA also said more data is coming.

“Currently, EPA is doing final technical review on a sampling activities report summarizing the dioxin/furan removal site evaluation work completed at the former Beaver Wood Products site between 2016 and 2023. This report will be provided to all former Beaver Wood Products site property owners soon. If the site does become a Superfund site, more cleanup resources would be available,” Jenkins said.

Meanwhile, the Sterlings feel a bit hopeless.

“We have nowhere else to go,” Leslie Sterling said.