Poisoned ground 

Mystery spill leaves Missoula family at a loss

In late March of this year, Missoulian Porsche Gregory got a whiff of an offensive odor coming from the carpet in her daughter’s basement bedroom. After days of powders and sprays, scrubbing and vacuuming, the smell persisted, resisting all manner of cover-ups and cleansers. Finally, Gregory and her boyfriend tore up the carpet in search of the smell. In the foundation was a crack. On hands and knees, the two sniffed along the break, discovering that the odor wasn’t native to the house—it was seeping in from the earth below.

“That night we left our house and went to stay with his parents,” says Gregory.

A few days after the family’s exodus, city-county environmental health specialist Jon Harvala arrived at the family’s request to investigate. Harvala also detected the odor, and he didn’t like the smell of it. After checking Gregory’s yard for chemical spills, Harvala went next door to check neighbor Fredrick Duke Hermann’s property, where he discovered chemical stains on Hermann’s land. Harvala began to dig to determine the damage.

While Harvala investigated, Gregory began her own search for answers. She called environmental testing firms, but couldn’t find anyone local who would test the air in her basement for less than $1,000. In Helena, she finally found Energy Laboratories, a company that uses reactive badges for chemical testing on industrial sites. Gregory shelled out $200 for a badge and a test, and was shocked by the results.

“[The test results] scared the crap out of me,” she says. “They told me that we shouldn’t even be walking around in the house, and that my daughter may have been exposed to harmful amounts of benzene and other chemicals…They told me they’d never seen this kind of a chemical readout on a home before. They were talking about levels for adults. My daughter is three.”

The Missoula City-County Health Department came back, dug more holes and ran more tests. Eventually, Harvala concluded that someone had dumped some sort of solvent—maybe paint thinner—on the strip of land between Hermann’s garage and Gregory’s house.

Gregory attorney Larry Riley says the whole case has given him a science tutorial.

“Fumes from contaminated soil actually percolate through the ground,” says Riley. “You don’t think that fumes are going to go through the dirt, but they do.”

It was a combination of factors that created the perfect environment to pull the tainted air through the ground and into Gregory’s basement, says Harvala. The ground temperature, the basement bedroom’s proximity to the spill and the crack in the foundation all played roles. Simply put, something in a high-pressure area seeks a low-pressure area—like air escaping from a balloon.

The ground is high-pressure, an empty house is low-pressure.

Once Harvala, Gregory and Riley knew the source, it only remained to clean the spill up. But like testing, clean-up isn’t cheap. Neither Gregory nor the Health Department wanted to foot the bill, so both looked to Hermann. But according to the Health Department and Gregory and her attorney, Hermann claims he doesn’t know how the chemicals got there.

“Nevertheless, under the local ordinance that we use to resolve these issues, it’s the owner of the property who must resolve the problem,” says Harvala. “This particular case has been troubling because [Hermann] didn’t appear to have a lot of resources at his disposal to clean this up.”

Hermann did hire Missoula’s MSC Environmental to start the clean-up, but could only afford to pay the company $1,000 at the time—not enough to finish the job. Just prior to the discovery of the pollution, Hermann had filed for bankruptcy, and last week was granted bankruptcy protection. Hermann has since amended his bankruptcy filing to add Gregory as a creditor, says Riley, but he thinks it’s unlikely that Gregory will ever see Hermann pay for the clean-up costs. Neither Hermann nor his attorney, Gary Wolfe, would comment on the bankruptcy or the status of the clean-up.

Riley has been wrangling with Hermann’s and Gregory’s insurance companies, but both have clauses in their policies exempting the companies from these types of claims.

“Ninety percent of people don’t know what their homeowners’ insurance will cover,” says Riley. “They buy it and think that it will cover everything. You hate to think that in this day and age someone could pollute the ground and drive you out of your house and there isn’t some recourse.”

Eric Smart of MCS was handling the clean-up for Hermann before the funds dried up. Smart says that it was a small spill, but that doesn’t equate to a small clean-up. Backhoes are needed to uncover earth, soil samples need to be tested and the waste requires disposal, he says.

“It’s been a really expensive five months,” says Gregory. “It’s been thousands of dollars. It’s really frustrating, because what Hermann has done is a criminal act [under Missoula’s Water Quality Ordinance]. What he’s done is illegal, but we can’t get anyone to clean it up.”

Currently, the future of the clean-up is uncertain, but the latest batch of testing has convinced Gregory she can move back into her house, at least until January, when environmental conditions are ripe for the chemical fumes to be pulled back into her house; further tests will be required in January and March, at $500 a pop, to make sure the house remains safe.

Harvala, meanwhile, hopes the spill has been cleaned up enough that it won’t drip into the water table, and can only watch as another polluter avoids responsibility. And Riley sees the system smacking a client in the face through no fault of her own.

“This has been a real exercise in frustration,” says Riley. “We always wish that there [would be] a solution to every problem. But there isn’t.”

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