JOHN DAY – The Environmental Protection Agency says gasoline – possibly mixed with other solvent chemicals – is the most likely cause of vapors that have been rising into southwest John Day buildings.
However, the source of the contamination – where it enters the ground – remained a mystery early this week.
At a community meeting Sunday in John Day, EPA on-scene coordinator Mike Boykin said an emergency response team is continuing to test air and take water samples in the area near Canyon Boulevard, an effort that began May 21.
So far the EPA crew and contractors have checked about 70 buildings, finding 30 that had vapors coming from basements and crawl spaces into living and working areas. The monitoring is continuing on a daily basis – twice-daily in some cases – and residents are urged to continue ventilating their homes.
He said while responders have “a hunch” about a source, they need to continue investigating and determine the chemical “fingerprint” of the contamination to match it to possible sources.
“Because of the complex nature of this investigation, it could take weeks to figure out the source,” he said. “We do science. We’re not going to point a finger at any particular source until we know it’s them.”
Boykin said once the agency finds the source, they advise the responsible party to get in touch with their insurer and start helping with the resolution of the problem.
He noted the investigation is a multi-agency effort, and the public’s health is the top priority.
About 20 residents attended the session, held at the Forest Supervisor’s Office. Joining the EPA at the meeting were John Combs, Grant County public health officer; David Anderson, a state Department of Environmental Quality manager; and Kattaryna Stiles, liaison with the Oregon Health Authority.
Stiles said anyone in an affected home who experiences headaches, tremors or other physical effects should talk to their doctor or care provider. She noted children and the elderly can be more susceptible to the effects of vapors.
She said the OHA will have more specific health recommendations for residents once more is known about the contamination, likely in a few days.
Boykin said residents who are ventilating their homes but still sense persistent vapors should call John Day Dispatch, and the EPA team will check it out.
The EPA last week brought in a small drilling rig to take groundwater samples to try to track the path of the chemicals. Boykin acknowledged that can be tricky – even with advance clearance from the utilities, the first hole “hit water.”
“Fortunately, it wasn’t a main line,” he said, adding the city public works took care of the break quickly.
He said by Sunday night, the crew should have 10 holes drilled.
Boykin said a major challenge in the probe comes from the disrupted geology of the area. The homes sit on historic mine tailing fields criss-crossed by more recent underground water, sewer and utility line trenches. The gravel and sand used in the trenches provide pathways for contaminants, he noted, but the course may be hard to discern.
“There’s no model that tells us if you spill gasoline here, it will end up down there,” he said. “And there have been lots of tanks in the area over the years – lots of gas stations.”
Last weekend, Boykin called an EPA environmental response team for additional help. A specialist based in Las Vegas was due to arrive early this week to start determining the next steps for monitoring, containing and cleaning up the contamination.
To report fumes, call John Day Dispatch at 541-575-0030. Anyone with concerns about health can contact Grant County Health Department, 541-575-0429.