Salt Lake officials will begin drilling test wells in the south downtown area to determine the extent of a hazardous-waste plume apparently emanating from underneath the site of an old city fire station.

The plume has possibly contaminated groundwater in the area of Second West and Seventh South, former location of Fire Station No. 12, Judson Gross, city safety coordinator, told Mayor Palmer DePaulis at a meeting Tuesday morning.The city will begin drilling test wells to determine the extent of the leak and how severely it is affecting the water table, only 9 feet below ground in that area, Gross said.

The problem surfaced because a line for connecting a sump pump and the city sewer system does not exist, he said. It was unclear whether the line had ever been installed or whether it was removed after the station was built in the early 1960s.

The sewer system was supposed to dispose of solvents used by firefighters to clean and service fire engines. Now such cleaners are made of biodegradable material, Gross said.

Solvents that may have contaminated water in the area include Toulene, Xylene and others on the Environmental Protection Agency's "list of heavies," Gross said.

Gross could not gauge how dangerous the leak was to area water users because the city has yet to measure the extent of the leak. However, no complaints have been received and periodic ground water tests have showed no problems in the area.

City Attorney Roger Cutler said he could not comment on whether the city is liable for the spill. But he said "in a generic way, the law provides that all past owners and all current owners . . . have responsibility for cleanup."

The city must research all past and present owners of the site, now the site of the old Stokes Brothers Building and currently owned by an auto dealer, Cutler said.

Cost of similar cleanups has run $4,000 to $10,000 a month, Gross said. Not knowing the extent of the leak, he could not estimate the cost of this cleanup, which the city will assume.

"It could conceivably be extremely expensive or it could turn out to be nothing at all," Gross said.

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