SALINA, Kan. -- In old Hangar 606 near the Salina Airport, geologist Jeff Wilson forces a drill into the floor. He carves out a one inch wide hole down into the sub-slab where he and engineer, Dr. Khaled Chekiri, will place an air monitoring device.
"The device will capture air over a 24-hour period," Chekiri says as Wilson revs up the drill again.
They're collecting the air as part of a groundbreaking investigation into the pollution left over from the former Schilling Air Force Base, where the Salina Airport sits today. For nearly two decades, city leaders have worked to force a clean up of a large plume of contaminated groundwater that they say could hit the Salina water supply.
The drilling performed Friday by Wilson is part of the Schilling Project's first field work since four Salina public entities gained control of the clean up from the federal government last year following a lawsuit.
It's a big step, they say, toward finally getting the pollution under control.
"Right now, we are really focused on getting the data we need to figure out what needs to be implemented," said Matthew Schroeder, Senior Environmental Engineer with Dragun Corporation which is overseeing the testing.
Over the next couple weeks, engineers and geologists with Dragun Corporation will be installing about four of the vapor intrusion monitoring devices in each of 11 buildings around the Salina Airport.
Schroeder says similar testing has been done in the past but it wasn't done recently and did not nearly have this large of scope.
"We are essentially refining the knowledge we have and updating the data," Schroeder said.
They say the data will reveal the scope of the problem and the amount of TCE that they will need to remediate. TCE is a degreaser the military used at the base. The base closed in 1965. TCE is a chemical that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says is known to cause cancer and birth defects.
In addition to the vapor samples, Dragun Corporation will be testing groundwater wells and studying that large plume of contaminated groundwater they say is inching toward the Salina water supply.
"In general, this is a very large project," Schroeder said. "The groundwater plume that we know about is about 8000 feet long. The area over which we are investigating is about 4000 acres."
They say they hope to complete the investigation and come up with a plan for cleanup within the next three years. In between the investigation and the clean up, they will do work to mitigate the effects of the pollutants if high levels are found, Schroeder said.
It's a much faster work rate than what was experienced when the project was being managed by the Army Corps of Engineers, city leaders said.
Four Salina entities filed a lawsuit against the federal government in 2010 to gain control of the project from the Army Corps of Engineers. Those entities include the City of Salina, USD 305, Kansas State University- Salina, and the Salina Airport Authority.
In 2013, they reached an agreement with the federal government in which the entities gained control and the government consented to pay 90 percent of the more than $9 million- clean up.
They say the progress shown of starting field work this week is something to be excited about, especially given it's been a long time coming.
"To actually see field work getting down and see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, it's a great feeling," said Martha Tasker, Director of Utilities for the City of Salina. "It's a great feeling to know that we are finally making some actual steps to getting the contamination defined and a time frame to start doing the work to remediate it and to ensure that our water supply is safe for many years to come."