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Frequently Asked Questions


How did this happen?

The exact source of the tetrachloroethylene (also known as perchloroethylene or perc, and abbreviated to PCE) contamination present in the groundwater at 700 South and 1600 East in Salt Lake City, Utah is unknown. EPA Region 8 has identified the Department of the Veterans Affairs (VA) as a potentially responsible party (PRP), since VA operated a dry cleaning operation at its adjacent medical center in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Under CERCLA (the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation, and Liability Act, commonly called Superfund), any party identified as contributing to a Superfund National Priorities List (NPL) site can be held liable for the entire NPL site cleanup costs. The CERCLA remedial investigation (RI) that is being initiated by VA will help establish if other businesses operating in this area of Salt Lake City, Utah may have contributed to the groundwater contamination and will be sharing in the remedial investigation and cleanup costs for the PCE plume identified at 700 South and 1600 East.

How did the EPA learn about the PCE plumes in groundwater and seeps in residents' yards?

In the summer of 2010 in response to an oil spill in Red Butte Creek, sampling was conducted by Salt Lake City Public Utilities to find contamination related to the spill. While no crude oil was detected, PCE was detected. After performing some initial sampling, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (UDEQ) requested the EPA's assistance with conducting a further investigation.

Why is the EPA getting involved now?

After receiving results of primary sampling efforts by Salt Lake City Public Utilities and new information about seeps in residential yards, UDEQ asked the EPA to support additional site investigation to determine the level and source of the PCE contamination, and to evaluate potential threats to human health and the environment.

What is PCE, the primary contaminant of concern?

Tetrachloroethylene (PCE) is a synthetic chemical that is widely used for dry cleaning fabrics and for metal-degreasing operations. It is also used as a starting material (building block) for making other chemicals and is used in some consumer products. PCE is a nonflammable, colorless liquid at room temperature and has a sharp, sweet odor. Other names for PCE include perchloroethylene, perc, tetrachloroethene, perclene and perchlor.

This problem was identified in the 1990s, why is it just now being addressed?

The EPA only recently discovered springs and shallow groundwater contamination further down on the hill. Prior to that, this was thought to be primarily a groundwater issue, and the city took measures to prevent exposures by removing drinking water wells from service. The discovery of the springs has changed conditions, creating new potential exposure pathways that are more difficult and costly to evaluate and manage. For that reason a more rigorous remedial investigation is needed to characterize the extent and nature of the PCE contamination.

Is drinking water safe?

Yes. Salt Lake City routinely tests its drinking water as required by federal standards. The city identified and removed one affected drinking water well from service pending additional investigation and corrective action. In addition, the artesian fountains at Liberty Park and at 800 South and 500 East are routinely tested, and no PCE has been detected.

Is private well water safe to drink?

We are not aware of private wells in the area that are being used for drinking water. If you have a private well in the area that you are drinking from, it is recommended that you have your water tested for PCE and other organic compounds.

There are numerous independent laboratories that can analyze your water for a fee. Contact your local or state health department for referral to a certified laboratory in your area.

What happens to PCE when it gets into the environment?

Much of the PCE that gets into water and soil will evaporate into the air. However, because PCE can travel through soils quite easily, it can get into groundwater where it may persist without being broken down. If conditions are right, bacteria will break down some of it, and some of the chemicals formed may also be harmful. Under some conditions, PCE may stick to the soil and stay there. It does not seem to bioaccumulate in animals that live in water, such as fish, clams and oysters. We do not know if it builds up in plants grown on land.

How might I be exposed to PCE and how does it affect my health?

A very common example is when clothes are brought home from the dry cleaners. The sweet odor you smell is a small amount of PCE being released into the air. In addition to breathing contaminated air, PCE may be ingested by drinking contaminated water or it can be absorbed through skin while taking a shower.

Scientific studies are uncertain whether low level, long-term exposure to PCE can cause adverse health effects. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) has reported on the toxicological profile for PCE and states that while the more complete scientific studies suggest that the lowest-observed-adverse-effect-level for PCE is 1700 ppbv, there are a couple studies that indicate vision effects in children as low as 50 ppbv. With that in mind, VA, EPA and UDEQ have set the Removal Action Level at 5.97 ppbv, which is less than 1/8 of the lower level from all studies cited by ATSDR, allowing for any uncertainty in human variability and for scientific data deficiencies.

Exposure to very high concentrations of PCE can cause dizziness, headaches, sleepiness, confusion, nausea, difficulty in speaking and walking, unconsciousness and death. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has determined that PCE may reasonably be anticipated to be a carcinogen.

I’m concerned about the health risks to my family, what can I do now to make sure they are protected?

Public water supplies are safe and Salt Lake City routinely tests its drinking water following federal standards. If you have a natural spring or private water well on your property, it is recommended that you have your water tested for PCE and other organic compounds before drinking it.

Indoor air sampling to date confirms PCE in some homes, but all were below the Removal Action Level (RAL). The greatest PCE results have been found where there is shallow depth-to-groundwater, sometimes evidenced by water routinely coming into the basement.

There are numerous independent laboratories that can analyze your water or air for a fee. Contact your local or state health department for referral to a certified laboratory in your area. Many of these labs can also analyze indoor air samples; however, you would likely need to hire a contractor with vapor intrusion expertise to collect the sample(s) for you.

My kids and dogs play in the spring water, are they going to get sick?

There have been some findings of PCE in area springs, but until the investigation is completed we do not know the extent of the impacted area. This level of investigation takes place during the remedial investigation (RI). The long-term effects from inhalation (vapor intrusion) and ingestion (drinking water) at low levels are some of the most concerning issues at this site. Based on the PCE concentrations measured in the springs, dermal (skin) contact for humans and pets playing in the springs is not likely a serious health concern. Assuming some incidental ingestion, inhalation and dermal contact during play, concentrations are still within the EPA’s acceptable limits.

I water my vegetable garden with spring water. Are my vegetables safe to eat?

Given the high volatility of PCE, its low potential for bioaccumulation, and the relatively low lipid content of most fruits and vegetables, it is unlikely that fruits and vegetables irrigated with PCE-contaminated spring water from the East Side Springs sites would harm people’s health. Additionally, this is something that will be evaluated in the Remedial Investigation (RI). There are studies which have shown that plant uptake of PCE and other chlorinated solvents are negligible and do not pose a serious risk to human health. PCE is extremely volatile and much of the chemical that gets into the water or soil evaporates into the air before it has a chance to be absorbed by plant tissue.

Are there any indoor air concerns (vapor intrusion) at this site?

Indoor air may become a concern if vapors from volatile chemicals migrate into air spaces of overlying buildings. This phenomenon is generally referred to as "vapor intrusion." Vapor intrusion is typically influenced by factors such as contaminant concentration, depth of contamination, depth to groundwater, and building construction and condition. Based on several of these factors, the potential for vapor intrusion does exist at this site. Preliminary investigations show limited occurrences of vapor intrusion.

Can the contamination get inside the house (vapor intrusion)?

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in contaminated soils and/or contaminated groundwater can emit vapors that may migrate through the soil and other air spaces of overlying buildings. This phenomenon is generally referred to as "vapor intrusion." Contaminated vapors typically enter buildings through cracks in basements and foundations, sewer lines and other openings. Vapor intrusion becomes a concern because vapors may build up to a point where the health of residents or workers in those buildings could be at risk.

Is there a concern for the air quality in this area?

Thirty-four outdoor ambient air samples were taken during the spring of 2015, and indicated no ambient air issues. Additional air samples will be taken as remedial investigation continues, but much of the site is capped with concrete and asphalt; therefore, the threat of exposure from ambient outdoor air is anticipated to be relatively low.

Is there a medical test to show whether I have been exposed to PCE?

One way of testing for PCE exposure is to measure the amount of the chemical in the breath, much the same way breath-alcohol measurements are used. A simple blood test can be administered, but this is usually done at specialized laboratories. Contact your personal physician if you have questions or concerns about potential PCE Exposure.

What is the indoor air Screening Level for PCE?

The screening level indicates a reference point at which VA can use the data for the purposes of the study. When a result is below the screening level, it is so low that it cannot be considered significant, and is highly unlikely to have any effect on the well-being of occupants in your home. If there are any results found below the screening level, they could be easily attributed to cleaners, glues, cosmetics, other sources in the home, or unknown sources that are typical of background levels not attributed to the groundwater plume. The screening level for PCE is 1.60 ppbv.

What is the indoor air Removal Action Level for PCE?

The Removal Action Level (RAL) for PCE in indoor air for this site is set at 5.97 ppbv (parts per billion by volume). This is 1/8 of the lowest-observed-adverse-effect-level (which was 50 ppbv) from all studies cited by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (or ATSDR, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Placing the RAL at 5.97 ppbv allows for any uncertainty in human variability and for scientific data deficiencies.

If a result is confirmed at or above the RAL, VA will design and install a PCE mitigation system. Such mitigation system will divert or filter out PCE until the groundwater plume is shown to no longer have an effect on the air quality in the affected structure.

Does the sampling test for chemicals other than PCE?

As PCE breaks down chemically, other constituents may form, and the samples are also analyzed for these constituents. By evaluating concentration levels of these other constituents, if found, it can be determined whether their occurrence is the result of PCE breakdown, or whether they occur from unrelated environmental contamination. The other constituents sampled for are: trichloroethylene (TCE); cis 1,2 dichloroethene (cis1,2 DCE); trans 1,2 dichloroethene (trans1,2 DCE); 1,1 dichloroethene (1,1 DCE); and vinyl chloride.

Who is going to pay for the cleanup?

At this point the federal government (VA) will pay for the CERCLA (Superfund) groundwater investigations and cleanups at the PCE plume identified at 700 South and 1600 East in Salt Lake City, Utah. If other potentially responsible parties (PRPs) are discovered during the CERLA process, their ability to financially contribute to the investigation and cleanup of the PCE plume will need to be evaluated and adjudicated by the U.S. Department of Justice, and also EPA Region 8 and Utah Department of Environmental Quality (UDEQ).

Have you determined who’s responsible for the contamination?

The EPA has identified a potentially responsible party (PRP)—the former dry cleaning facility at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) operated in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. There may be others, but as of now EPA has not identified additional PRPs. However, it’s not uncommon to discover additional PRPs during the Remedial Investigation (RI) phase, when more resources are available to conduct a more thorough and comprehensive investigation.

What is the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) position on this problem?

VA has taken the lead for response actions and is working with the EPA and Utah Department of Environmental Quality (UDEQ), as well as coordinating with the city and other stakeholders to address characterizing and remediating the PCE contamination. VA has hired a CERCLA project manager, contracted with qualified environmental remediation firms and provided community involvement support.

Could VA clean up the site without it being listed on the National Priorities List?

While the EPA initially identified this problem and potential risks, we do not know how widespread it is and what the actual risks are. We do know it is more extensive than previously thought. Listing the site on the National Priorities List makes needed resources available to better determine the nature and extent of the PCE contamination, and to address risks if and where they exist. The state and city do not have resources to investigate a problem of this scale.

What is the benefit of being listed on the National Priorities List (NPL)?

NPL placement ensures that a comprehensive remedial investigation will occur, that any identified health risks will be addressed and, if necessary, that the PCE groundwater contamination will be cleaned up. The NPL listing provides access to technical and financial resources that are otherwise unavailable. In addition to funds for investigation and cleanup, NPL listing unlocks resources for communities to help them better understand the technical issues and guarantees the citizens will have the opportunity to provide input in the process and comment on decisions before they are made. Community involvement is ongoing throughout the investigation and cleanup, and the EPA provides support programs such as the formation of a Community Advisory Group (CAG), the availability of Technical Assistance Grants (TAG) and the Technical Assistance Services for Communities (TASC) program.

Will National Priorities List (NPL) listing reduce my property values?

There are no easy answers with property value issues. People buy and sell homes for a variety of reasons: great school ratings, close to family, a popular location usually win out with real estate decisions.

Based on past cleanups, the EPA believes that Superfund cleanup has an overall beneficial impact on the community, because the listing of a site on the NPL triggers a federal commitment to do cleanup work. This step reduces uncertainty and may act as a signal to real estate markets that property improvements are imminent.

Do I have to disclose this cleanup information when I attempt to sell this property?

This is a legal question and should be discussed with your real estate or legal professional. For more information, please refer to web sites such as the following:

http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/utah-home-sellers-disclosures-state-law.html

This sounds expensive, what impact will this have on care for Veterans or hospital jobs?

VA CERCLA/Superfund Project will have fiscal impacts on VA Rocky Mountain Network’s operating budget for many years but we are continuously working with all parties to mitigate this impact and ensure our Veterans continue to receive care that is second to none.

Who decides how the site is cleaned up?

VA is the lead federal agency for the cleanup but EPA and UDEQ advise VA and give their approval and consent on each major action. However, the Superfund law also requires that the community be given every opportunity to have meaningful input on how the cleanup is completed. VA, EPA and UDEQ are committed to involving any interested citizens or groups along with local government throughout the decision process.

How quickly can you start, what has to happen next?

VA has conducted the first phase of field testing and is working with EPA and UDEQ to ensure that the next phase proceeds according to a remedial investigation work plan which develops the needed information to evaluate human health and the environment risk. The remedial investigation is a detailed investigation of the nature and extent of the site. Indoor air sampling and near-slab soil gas sampling has begun in the East Side Springs area. Further investigative steps are continually prioritized and investigation is then followed by cleanup as is necessary.

What voice does the community have in the process?

The community is invited to contact VA, UDEQ and EPA with their questions and to provide input throughout the remedial investigation and the entire Superfund process. Occasional open house meetings are held to inform the public and solicit public response (notices in local newspapers), an information repository is located in the Salt Lake City Public Library, briefings are provided to local public agencies and Community Councils, and updates can be found on the web at www.pceplume-700s1600e.net, or at www2.epa.gov/region8/700-south-1600-east-pce-plume.

Some communities choose to be very involved and form a Community Advisory Group, others do not. The EPA, UDEQ and VA welcome input and involvement from all stakeholders. Technical Assistance Grants and other financial resources are available to communities to encourage and facilitate meaningful involvement. For more information about community involvement at Superfund sites, visit www.epa.gov/superfund/community.

How were the site boundaries determined?

Superfund designation seeks to include the source of the contamination and wherever contamination may have spread and is a threat to human health and the environment. When the PCE Plume site was proposed, a basic area was described in the listing package, and a report prepared and sent to EPA headquarters supporting why the site qualifies for placement on the NPL. Boundaries may change and will not be fully defined until after the Remedial Investigations and Feasibility Studies (RI/FS) are complete.

Who do I contact to get more information or if I want to be involved somehow?

VA Salt Lake City HCS
Jeremy Laird, Public Affairs Specialist
500 Foothill Drive
Salt Lake City, UT 84148
(801) 582-1565, ext. 1955
Jeremy.Laird@va.gov

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 8
Chris Wardell, Community Involvement Coordinator
(303)-312-6062
wardell.christopher@epa.gov

David Allison, Community Involvement
P.O. Box 144840
Salt Lake City, UT 84114-4840
(801) 536-4479
DAllison@utah.gov