Division of Spill Prevention and Response


Incident location map. Summary Date: September 2008 View detailed information from database on this site.arrow
Status: Active Database Name: MC Commercial Cleaners
Location: Wendell Avenue, Fairbanks Latitude and Longitude: 64.845060, -147.714560

DEC Contaminated Sites contact: James Fish, Project Manager, 907-451-2117

Description Health & Environment Current Status More Info


Description Real estate environmental assessments in 2001 and 2002 revealed soil and groundwater contamination from dry cleaning solvents in the Wendell Avenue and Griffin Park area.

The current data strongly suggest that  dry cleaning operations from the 1960s to the early 1980’s at the Wendell Avenue site resulted in releases of tetrachloroethylene (also know as PCE or PERC), a manufactured chemical used for dry cleaning and metal degreasing.

Evidence suggests PCE was released from the dry cleaner through drains in the building, which led into the sanitary sewer. Subsequent leaks or breaks in the sewer likely contaminated soil and groundwater in the vicinity.  (Note: Disposal practices once considered standard are no longer legal. Dry cleaners today use significantly less solvent and the dry cleaning machines are now closed-loop systems, meaning no discharge from the machine to the sewer. The solvent must be properly collected in the machine and disposed of in a controlled manner.)

PCE breaks down through natural biological processes, producing trichloroethene (TCE), the dichoroethenes (DCE), and vinyl chloride. PCE and these breakdown products have been detected in the soil gas (the air between soil particles) and groundwater along the sewer service line coming from the dry cleaner and along the sewer main that runs west to east along Wendell Avenue. The slow movement of groundwater, estimated to flow to the north-northwest, may also have transported these products belowground toward the Chena River. The dry cleaner is located approximately 400 feet south of the Chena River. Seasonal changes in the Chena River stage could also cause significant and transient shifts in the local ground water flow direction, thereby influencing a ground water contaminant plume.

Legal responsibility for the release of PCE has not yet been determined. The likely source of the underground contamination is the dry cleaning operations at 314 Wendell Avenue, ongoing since at least 1961 under several different names and owners. There may also be other sources. Since 2002 the search for a willing and able responsible party has hindered characterization of this contamination. Since we now see a high potential for vapor intrusion at this site and the risk it may cause, DEC is proceeding with characterization using State funds until the legal issues can be sorted out.

In 2002, DEC believed the contamination presented a very low risk to human health because no drinking water wells were present. In recent years, however, our understanding of the risks that vapor intrusion poses has significantly changed. A DEC investigation during 2006 and 2007 in Fairbanks at a former dry cleaning facility along Gaffney Road has improved our understanding of the soil concentrations that can cause vapor intrusion. This investigation employed more rigorous sampling techniques, and it has led to us to look more closely at other sites with similar or higher concentrations.

What is vapor intrusion?

Many chemicals give off fumes. These chemicals are called "volatile." When released into the soil or groundwater, a certain amount of the chemical vaporizes into the small air spaces within the soil. The larger the chemical spill and the more volatile the chemical, the more chemical vapors move into the air spaces. This air is called soil gas. If the air pressure inside the building is lower than in the soil, or if the amount of chemicals in the soil gas is high, the vapors move, or intrude, into any open space, such as cracks in foundations, crawl spaces, and basements. People in buildings can sometimes smell a chemical, but often the chemicals are odorless or too faint to smell.

See our vapor intrusion page

Our vapor intrusion investigation in the Wendell Avenue area began in early 2008 at buildings in the immediate vicinity of the dry cleaners which DEC believed were at the highest risk and where the owners permitted access. The results from this study warrant further investigation. We are working with these property owners to continue the investigation.   

At each building where we suspect vapor intrusion may occur, we have begun by obtaining the landowner's permission to conduct tests. We proceeded by testing the chemical concentrations of the air inside the building, immediately outside it, and the soil gas directly beneath it to determine the potential for these long-term risks. If there is a potential for unacceptable risk, we will seek to eliminate the exposure to the contamination through cleanup or other means.

Public Health and Environmental Concerns The health effects of breathing air or drinking water with low levels of PCE are not clearly known. PCE primarily targets the nervous system and kidney. Exposure to very high concentrations of PCE can cause dizziness, headache, nausea, coordination problems, and possibly kidney damage.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has found PCE to be a likely carcinogen (cancer-causing). PCE has been shown to cause tumors in mice and rats. More information on PCE is available at the website of the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry.

DEC is working with the Environmental Public Health Program (EPHP) of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services to better understand and evaluate the possible health risks to people who may be exposed to contamination through vapor intrusion. As more data are collected, DEC and EPHP will work together with the landowners and building occupants, informing them of the health risks, if any, and of appropriate actions to control or eliminate those risks.

Current Status Contaminant Release Investigation
Based on the vapor intrusion assessments at three buildings in January and May 2008 and the historical data, DEC has determined an areawide release investigation is warranted for Wendell Avenue. In addition to continuing to evaluate the possibility of vapor intrusion in the area, we will also investigate the potential for contamination to enter the Chena River. This investigation will evaluate all potential sources of the chlorinated solvent contamination in the Wendell Avenue Area, defined by Noble St to the west, Hall St to the East, 1st Avenue to the south, and the Chena River to the north.

This work will involve an intensive drilling program along Wendell avenue, on the dry cleaner property, and in Griffin park. We appreciate the cooperation and patience of park users, downtown residents, and business owners during this period of the investigation.

Landowner consent and cooperation is essential in a vapor intrusion assessment. The sampling methods for vapor intrusion require entering the building, gathering information about the building design, and, in some cases, drilling 3 to 4 small holes through the foundation. (For more information, see “Sampling  fact  sheet” below.) We are sensitive to the fact that these methods are intrusive to personal property and make every effort to minimize the disturbance and return the property to its original condition. We only use this sampling methodology when we suspect the potential risk at a site is high enough to warrant its use.

If we determine that any buildings do have an indoor air problem, contaminated vapors in the air can be cleaned in ways similar to preventing naturally-occurring radon gas contamination. Radon is an indoor air problem common in Fairbanks, and the Cooperative Extension Service of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, has a number of publications and recommendations on techniques and services. For further information on radon mitigation techniques or sub-slab depressurization systems, you may contact us at the number provided at the top of the page, contact a local radon specialist, and/or review EPA’s website on radon mitigation.

Vapor intrusion can be difficult to identify with certainty. The contaminant levels we’re looking for can be quite low, and other sources of contamination unrelated to soil and groundwater contamination (such as paint or solvent cans stored in the building and regional background levels in the environment) can also contribute to poor indoor air quality. With landowner consent, several methods of sampling will be used in this investigation to allow us to determine with more certainty if vapors are coming from the underground contamination.

We soon expect to contract with a firm to continue the vapor intrusion investigation this September. We will continue to work with the potentially responsible parties and refine a comprehensive strategy to determine the full extent of contamination in the soil and groundwater and evaluate potential remedial options, if necessary

More Information

The map below indicates the results of groundwater monitoring in 2001 and 2002.
PCE concentrations are in micrograms per liter.
The maximum contaminant level (MCL), based on use of the water for drinking, is 5 micrograms/cubic liter.

The groundwater is not being used for drinking, but the concentrations in groundwater and in soil gas (not shown) help indicate priority locations for monitoring related to indoor air.