By Kimberlee Kruesi
TWIN FALLS • The problem came from a common chemical with an uncommon name: tetrachloroethylene.
It was a chemical dry cleaners in the 1980s loved — including Twin Falls-based Mr. A’s.
The clear liquid easily removed stains. But it has since been classified as an environmental pollutant by public health officials.
After years of lax regulation, the improperly disposed tetrachloroethylene began to permeate deeper into the soil, groundwater and air surrounding Mr. A’s, according to the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality. By 2007, Mr. A’s was no longer in business but the damage that began underground was quickly rising to the surface.
Mr. A’s was now a brownfield.
What’s a brownfield? It’s a term used by state and federal officials to describe a piece of property contaminated by hazardous pollutants like tetrachloroethylene, petroleum and many more.
In Idaho, close to 65 property owners have enrolled in some sort of state cleanup assessment program throughout the state. Fifteen of those sites are located in south-central Idaho.
Some are former gasoline stations or dry cleaners while others are landfills no longer in service. Yet, all of these sites have the potential to leak carcinogenic materials into underground water sources, including one of the Magic Valley’s most precious resources: the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer.
While some chemicals become diluted once they hit a large water source, brownfield sites usually contain pollutants that have a high toxicity even at low levels. Dry cleaning solvents are extremely mobile in groundwater while landfill pollutants can easily penetrate into the deepest of aquifers.
On top of environmental concerns, brownfields can also negatively affect property values, which in turn can harm economic development, said Bruce Wicherski, volunteer cleanup program manager for DEQ.
But the amount of time and money required to successfully clean a site can be daunting. State funding options remain few while federal funding options are highly competitive.
Understanding how the sites became contaminated requires digging through the history of each.
In the Magic Valley, most brownfields stem from a lack of regulation on older businesses handling dangerous chemicals.
Since the city of Twin Falls’ earliest development, the businesses that led to brownfields were in areas near commercial and industrial hubs — many in the city’s downtown and Old Towne districts — said Melinda Anderson, economic development director for the city and director of the Twin Falls Urban Renewal Agency.
“We had no idea how it was going to impact us,” she said.
Multiple gas stations began popping up with few to no regulations on proper disposal requirements. By the 1980s, dry cleaning businesses began using chemicals that were then disposed of in a sink, said Aaron Scheff, DEQ brownfield response program manager.
“Back in the day, nobody knew it was harmful to dump these chemicals into the sink. And then that building turns into a couple other businesses or the building remains vacant, but it’s still a source of contamination,” Scheff said
In 2006, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter approved a pilot program that allotted $1.5 million of state funds for brownfield cleanup efforts. The money was split evenly among 10 projects — each given $150,000 — with three of the sites located in south-central Idaho.
Six years later, workers at the majority of the sites are still removing the chemicals buried deep within the lava rock.
Brownfield cleanup efforts aren’t impossible but become difficult in an area layered with basalt rock and plenty of fractured rock, Scheff said.
“Obviously, the quality of the aquifer is a huge concern for us but the geology of this area makes it complicated for cleanup,” he said.
On top of environmental concerns, brownfield cleanups are also important to encourage city revitalization efforts. It’s not uncommon for brownfields to be located on prime real estate. Cleaning up a contaminated site can not only protect natural resources, but also prevent urban sprawl and bring in new business to create new jobs, Scheff said.
That’s what happened at the Mr. A’s site. The new property owners have transitioned the business into a Don Aslett’s Cleaning Center. It’s a new business that’s created new jobs in a well-populated site.
However, the cleanup effort is still ongoing, said Lori Chandler, part-owner and manager of the cleaning center.
While the retail store is open, DEQ officials are still monitoring the site for traces of contamination in the air and groundwater.
“Sometimes they (DEQ) come in and the tests come back clean and then they come back a month later and the test shows traces of contamination,” she said.
Chandler didn’t know when the cleanup effort will be completed but she said the project has been expensive.
“We’ve been able to move forward with the store but the cleanup is taking a long time,” she said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever be really done with it.”