First-of-its-kind research project enlists Fairbanks residents to help sample ‘vapor intrusion’ into homes

a snowy downtown
Downtown Fairbanks in Feb. 2022 (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

The federal Environmental Protection Agency is asking people who live in an area near downtown Fairbanks to participate in a first-of-its kind research project that asks for the public’s help in sampling gases in their homes from soil and groundwater contamination.

Researchers hope to get about 30 households in a residential area just west of downtown to help monitor gases from subsurface contamination and naturally occurring radon that may be infiltrating homes through a process called “vapor intrusion.”

“We’re looking for volunteers who, one, want to know the condition of their homes, but two, want to help people all over the country who may be exposed to the same chemicals,” said Lenny Siegel, who works with RTI International, a North Carolina-based research institute that the Environmental Protection Agency has contracted to conduct the study.

Siegel said in an interview Tuesday that EPA’s so-called Soil Gas Safe Communities research project aims to develop more user-friendly and cost-effective ways to sample the gases in real time.

“The idea is to come up with methods that are easier and more efficient to sample the sub-soil gas and indoor air,” he said, “so that more areas can be studied, and more quickly.”

The area that’ll be studied is bounded by Kellum Street to the west, Cushman Street to the east, and 6th Avenue and Smythe Street to the north and south. The area lies over two plumes of groundwater contaminated with perchloroethylene, or PCE, and other volatile compounds. But this study includes only the larger, western plume.

“That’s a good-sized cluster,” Siegel said. “And the idea is to have (residents) spread out over the area of the plume. And we’re expecting that the levels will vary — y’know, we don’t want to have everybody in the same place.”

a map of homes in an area of Fairbanks
Red lines outline the approximate area in which the EPA will conduct its research project. The residential area primarily is comprised of single-family homes and ground-floor residences. The blue area within the lines approximates the plume of contamination from the Gaffney West volatile organic compounds, including PCE. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

James Fish is the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s project manager for the Gaffney Road Areawide Groundwater Contamination Investigation. He said the agency has been studying the contamination since 1997. The contamination came from commercial and industrial dry cleaners that operated around Gaffney Road from the 1950s to about seven years ago. He said EPA’s research project will inform DEC’s ongoing work.

“What EPA is looking to do is expand on what DEC has done, and use new tools that would include using radon as a tracer of vapor intrusion,” he said. “And also encourage a citizen science approach, where people can collect and monitor their own data.”

Fish said the DEC has set up remediation systems in the contaminated area. But he said it’ll take at least 10 more years to clean up the mess.

Siegel said it’s the perfect place to conduct this first-of-its-kind EPA research project.

“We took a while to figure where to do this,” he said. “We were looking at places all over the United States, as potential sites, and this one fit the bill.”

Siegel said the homeowners selected to participate in the experiment won’t have to expend a lot of time and effort. Mainly, they’ll have to agree to allow a radon sensor about the size of a thermostat to be installed in their home. And smaller temporary monitors will be placed around their houses four or five times over the course of the year-long project.

“We’re hoping to do a number of other sites, in different climates, in different kinds of buildings,” he said. “But this is the first place where the Soil Gas Safe approach is being taken.”

Siegel said EPA hopes to get volunteers set up in time for a first round of sampling next month.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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