Testing for toxins on the Northside 

The revival of North Missoula provides a much-needed example of urban renewal. Yet the long shadow of the former White Pine Sash site still looms over the area. Since 1989, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has known that the former mill site harbors toxins at concentrations high enough to qualify for Montana superfund cleanup dollars. Yet the procedure for cleaning up the mess has been torturously slow.

Three weeks ago, the DEQ held a public meeting at the Whittier School, soliciting comments on its Final Draft Baseline Risk Assessment Plan, which outlines methods and possible risks of clean-up. This kicked off a month-long written public commentary period which ends Friday, May 12 at 5 p.m.

Meanwhile, the Missoula County Department of Environmental Health landed a federal grant through the EPA to conduct more soil tests in the neighborhood to determine whether or not toxins have leached into local lawns and gardens. Chris Cerquone of the environmental health department notes that the grant actually serves a dual purpose.

“We will be able to test adjacent properties for contamination,” Cerquone says. “Already there’s some concern because there’s trace elements of dioxin in aquifers below the property, and now local residents will be able to test soils. But the grant also provides some money to address community needs and concerns.”

Such concerns are valid, he adds, as the community tries to transform the neighborhood into a healthy diversification of homeowners and renters.

“None of what the DEQ will do in any phase of this process addresses the concerns of property development, and that to me is the real issue behind all this,” Cerquone says. “If property values begin to decline, we’ll start seeing less home-ownership and more people just buying property as an investment.”

Cerquone also notes that his department has applied to have the comment period extended. “DEQ’s document is a thick thing, and neighbors need time to read it and make informed comments,” he says.

Meanwhile, the city has hired a contractor to begin testing for sub-surface contamination in the North Missoula neighborhood. According to Cerquone, about 40 tests will be conducted for dioxin, and another 40 for pentachlorophenol, both of which have been detected below the DEQ’s “allowable” levels in the Missoula aquifer.

“People want to know if it’s OK to eat produce from their gardens or play in their yards,” observes Cerquone, “and the answers they’re getting from the DEQ are often not entirely clear. That’s why we applied for this grant. But ultimately, they hold the cards.” Results from soil, home, and garden tests should start trickling in around July or August.

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