No end in blight 

Northside Superfund site languishes

The White Pine and Sash Superfund site is a fenced-in field of knapweed just north of the Scott Street Bridge in Missoula. On a recent day there's an empty beer can in the grass outside the fence, and a hypodermic needle stuck into the ground, plunger side up.

Mike Stevenson eyes this blighted land with frustration many days when he commutes past on Interstate 90 from his Grant Creek home to downtown Missoula. In 1999, he and six other investors purchased 30 of the White Pine and Sash Superfund site's 43 acres. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality still hasn't issued the final cleanup standards for the site, much less a final cleanup order. "We've been waiting a long time for someone to say, 'Okay, do this. And you're okay,'" Stevenson says.

Stevenson worked for 16 years at the Missoula-based environmental remediation company Envirocon. He knew full well that investing in a state-designated Superfund site was risky. But he didn't see himself getting saddled with—and paying taxes on—a blighted weed lot for more than a decade.

click to enlarge The White Pine and Sash Superfund site on Missoula’s Northside. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

"We didn't feel that the environmental impacts were all that great—that they could be pretty easily handled," he says. "[With] a bulldozer and three months you probably could have cleaned that property up."

Between 1920 and 1996, this parcel was a bustling manufacturing operation called White Pine Sash and Door. It used petroleum products and pentachlorophenol, often called penta or PCP. Wood products were dipped into underground vats of a PCP mixture to reduce fungus and mold growth. The Environmental Protection Agency says PCP is a likely carcinogen.

In the late '80s, state scientists discovered the PCP-contaminated soil. The state declared White Pine and Sash a Superfund site in 1994. In 1999, Huttig Building Products, which owned White Pine Sash and Door when it closed in 1996, sold 12 acres to Zip Beverage and 30 acres to Scott Street Partners, Stevenson's investment group. A year later Zip and Scott Street Partners sold 15.5 acres to the city. The three stakeholders each donated one acre to the city for a park.

Though Huttig no longer owns the property, the state holds it legally responsible for the cleanup. Huttig has over the years removed contaminated soil, regularly tested for contaminants, and installed a system to treat groundwater. The city, too, has worked to remediate its land, which now houses the Missoula Public Works Department.

Seeing remediation efforts wind down on other portions of the property, Scott Street Partners asked the DEQ on Jan. 7 to make a "no further action determination" for its 19.2 acres. The city is waiting for the same. That would green-light commercial development.

"We are anxious to develop the property," Stevenson says.

He'll have to wait longer. On Feb. 3, the DEQ informed Scott Street Partners that there's more cleanup to do. There remain elevated levels of cadmium and buried wood waste. "When [wood] degrades, the bacteria give off methane and it gets trapped in there," says DEQ Project Officer Colleen Owen. "[It] can be at levels that are potentially explosive should you put a building structure over it."

And now there's another hitch: The DEQ is for the first time testing whether vaporized chemical compounds that linger 30 feet underground are being released into the atmosphere. Armed with new technology, the agency is testing the southern portion of the White Pine and Sash site, and around Zip Beverage. It's also testing 21 homes in a roughly one-block radius from the foot of the Scott Street Bridge to Waverly Street. Owen says it's too early to say if chemical vapors threaten human health.

"We'll definitely know more in a few weeks, when we have the soil gas results," Owen says. "At this point we haven't seen anything that requires an immediate action...This is really making sure there isn't a risk."

Bob Oaks, director of the North Missoula Community Development Corporation and longtime Northside advocate, says he, like Stevenson, would love to see the long-blighted White Pine developed. But he's wary of Scott Street Partners' request for a commercial cleanup standard. Commercial standards are lower than residential standards.

"We would like to see the site cleaned up to the highest and best that the law could require," Oaks says. "If it's cleaned up to residential standards, then commercial development can happen there, housing development could happen there. It doesn't close the door on anything."

The DEQ will use its chemical vapor data to help draft cleanup mandates for the White Pine and Sash property. The public will be invited to weigh in before the agency finalizes its decision.

In the meantime, Owen says she understands the frustrations with the pace of the cleanup, but it's the DEQ's responsibility to use the best science available to ensure the area is safe.

"When it comes to answering the question of whether it's impacting peoples' health, it's just a really important piece for us at this point to make sure that that isn't an issue before we move forward," Owen says.

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