Heidi West and her children, Sylvan, 3, and Ivory, 5, love to ride bicycles in their Northside neighborhood.
This winter after the snow dump, West bundled up the little ones and headed to the hill above their home near White Pine Park.
“This year, there was enough snow that the sledding was awesome,” said West, a Northsider since 2009.
Alex and Libby Metcalf bought a lot and designed themselves a brand new house in the same neighborhood, a stone’s throw from the railroad tracks. They moved in one year ago, and they like walking their dogs, Porter and Mr. T, in the North Hills.
“We loved the fact that it was close to town, that we could bike or walk to work, to restaurants, to everything,” Alex Metcalf said.
Despite its challenges, many residents like living in the area bounded by the railroad and Interstate 90, and public school projections show enrollment in the district is on the rise. New homes are going up, and the vacant 19 acres just north of the Scott Street Bridge have been considered a prime location for more.
The former industrial property, however, is also part of a state Superfund site, formally part of the White Pine Sash Superfund Facility. Development can’t take place there until the Montana Department of Environmental Quality selects a cleanup plan and the company that profited there removes the hazards it left behind.
The fix has been a long time coming.
Since 1999, the Scott Street Partners have owned the open land, and Mike Stevenson is eager to see an industrial project come alive at the location near the rail line. Contaminated property, though, is a hard sell.
“I’m getting tired of paying taxes on a piece of property I can’t do anything with,” Stevenson said.
After missing multiple deadlines, the DEQ in February released a proposed cleanup plan for the entire site; Friday, it extended public comment through April 14 due to “significant local interest.” In fact, an apparent change in direction proposed for the open land – one with lower cleanup standards – is rippling through the neighborhood.
In 2004, the Department of Environmental Quality reviewed a cleanup plan for the northern portion of the former mill site, “specifically for residential development.”
In 2010, the city developed a new playing park, White Pine Park, directly south of the property.
In 2011, a city official told the DEQ “residential use is one of the most valuable and most viable potential future uses of the northern portion of White Pine Sash.”
In 2014, however, the Department of Environmental Quality issued a proposed cleanup order that anticipates those acres will be used for commercial or industrial purposes, but not for homes.
“This is just not a plan that is good enough. They need to come back with a better plan,” West said.
All in all, the White Pine Sash site is 43 acres west of Scott Street near Stoddard Street.
The southern portion of the site is in use, and the Scott Street Partners own the vacant 19 acres. Several years ago, the city created White Pine Park with land donations from Zip Beverage and Scott Street Partners, and it cleaned the park to residential standards.
Operations at the Northside lumber mill and wood treatment plant began in 1905. Chemicals used to treat window sashes proved to be hazardous, and in 1995, the Department of Environmental Quality named Huttig Building Products the liable party.
One year later on Christmas Eve, the plant shut its doors without warning. The North Missoula Community Development Corp. formed to advocate for the neighborhood, and executive director Bob Oaks wrote a history of the site.
“Huttig required former employees, if they wanted to collect accrued vacation pay, to sign waivers indemnifying the company from any future lawsuits relating to their employment,” reads the report from Oaks.
Poisonous material on the property includes pentachlorophenol (PSP), associated dioxins/furans, and petroleum hydrocarbons. Early health studies showed mixed and inconclusive results, but “a handful of former employees were soundly convinced that they were sick as a result of chemical exposure at the plant,” according to the NMCDC.
In 1994, the state’s top health official visited Missoula and pledged a remediation that would leave no health risk, “even after the cleanup is complete.”
Last week, the Missoula City-County Health Department board voted unanimously to urge the DEQ to demand full cleanup of the site: “In order to protect public health, this portion of the site must be remediated to levels protective of public health assuming residential use.”
In 1995, Huttig began conducting a “remedial investigation” on the site. Its work included installing wells, setting up soil vapor monitors, collecting samples, estimating the concentration levels of “chemicals of concern,” and removing “hot spots.”
In November 2013, Huttig’s legal counsel submitted a memo to the DEQ listing ways the land south of the vacant acreage already is in use: vehicle maintenance, gravel and sand stockpiles, equipment parking, engineering offices, beverage warehouse and distribution, manufacturing, and “a small park.”
“The present use of the property is commercial and industrial. … The future use of the property will also be industrial or commercial, just as it has been for the past 100 years,” reads the memo. “Any other determination by the Department would be arbitrary and capricious, unreasonable, and invite unnecessary risk.”
To support its argument, the memo said the Scott Street Partners have received more than 100 inquiries for commercial projects on the open land – and just one for residential. It also offered an estimation of the appeal, or lack thereof, of the Northside as a place to live.
“There are several houses that are for sale or vacant in the area. ... This is an indication that there is little desire or need to live by the property. … Most people do not desire to live in the proximity of the railyard due to the noise and problems associated with the transient population.”
Alex Metcalf, of course, chose to live near the tracks.
“It’s infuriating to those of us who live on the Northside, those among us who have lived here a long time and love the neighborhood, and those of us who are just moving in and really, really excited about our new neighborhood,” Metcalf said.
In fact, the district allowed the Metcalfs to build an affordable home designed to their liking. They built a larger house footprint and less yard than many other residential districts would permit, and similar homes are going up.
Home sales on the Northside have generally been on the rise in recent years, according to data from the Missoula Organization of Realtors.
On Wednesday, a retired architect told Missoula City Council members that 54 percent of people in Missoula rent, and the need for multifamily developments also is great. James Hoffmann’s firm focused on multifamily and affordable homes, and every day, he said, those who work in the industry face scarcity of land for dense projects.
“I’m here to say to you that if we lose those 19 acres (of potential) residential development, it’ll be a big loss to the neighborhood and the city,” Hoffmann said. “We have a deficit of property zoned and available to multifamily in this community.”
The property is zoned M1R-2 to allow light industrial use and residential use. A resolution the council considers Monday counts 486 dwelling units permitted in the city limits from 2008 to 2013 in areas zoned for commercial or industrial use with a residential component.
Stevenson, though, said a deed is in place to prevent residential development there. He’s eager to see some other project develop, however, and he supports a proposed urban renewal district that would encompass the site.
“After 14 years, we’re kind of anxious to do something,” Stevenson said. “Every year, (there’s) another anxiety attack that goes by.”
The Missoula Economic Partnership also views the site as prime for an industrial project, especially given its access to rail. In a November letter to the DEQ, MEP president James Grunke said the area lacks “ready-to-use industrial land,” and the “best use for redevelopment” would be commercial or industrial.
Stevenson pays roughly $9,000 in taxes on the property annually, he said. The site would be more valuable if he could develop a commercial or industrial project, but an environmentally impacted property with no cleanup plan or deadline is a tough pitch, and one he didn’t anticipate in 1999.
“I thought probably within two years, it would be cleaned up,” Stevenson said.
A few years ago, the partners tried to rezone the property to exclude residential use and “bring the property zoning in line with the deed restriction,” Stevenson said. The DEQ recommended the partners pursue the change, given their interest in commercial development.
“If Scott Street LLP wishes DEQ to determine residential use is not likely on this portion of the facility in the future, DEQ encourages Scott Street LLP to initiate a request to change the zoning of the property,” reads a 2006 letter from the agency.
The Planning Board recommended denying the rezone, though, and Scott Street withdrew the request before it went to the City Council for a final vote. As things stand, Stevenson said the partners aren’t likely to try again: “Probably not, now that the proposed remedy has been issued, you know?”
A proposed remedy isn’t a final one, though, and momentum is building in Missoula to push the DEQ to revise its order.
Last week, a Missoula City Council committee unanimously recommended approval of a resolution that calls on the state agency to “recognize residential use – among a mix of residential and commercial/industrial activities – in its cleanup plan.”
Councilors Bryan Von Lossberg and Jason Wiener sponsored the measure, which the full council takes up Monday.
“There’s nasty stuff in the ground ... and the health of my surrounding neighborhood and community is of paramount importance,” Von Lossberg said.
The DEQ considers these four factors in evaluating anticipated use: local land and resource regulations, ordinances, restrictions, or covenants; historical and anticipated uses; patterns of development in the immediate area; and relevant indications of anticipated use from the owner and planning officials.
“If the Legislature wanted DEQ to require cleanup consistent with the zoning, it could have said that in the statute,” said DEQ spokesman Chris Saeger. “It didn’t – and rather clearly indicated that zoning was only one part of one factor to consider.”
Von Lossberg said the site might be best with a light manufacturing plant, it might be best with homes, and it might be best with a mix. Regardless of the project, though, he said community members want the area to be as safe as possible for public health.
“I think that’s important for any type of development that goes on there, frankly,” Von Lossberg said.
The difference in cleanup costs is staggering, according to the DEQ.
The preferred remedy is estimated to cost $7.9 million, and a fix that would clean the site so it’s safe enough for homes would cost as much as $21 million, according to the agency’s Scott Graham. He said the amount includes excavating the soil and disposing of it properly.
The $21 million, though, might be unrealistically high, according to West, the neighbor who enjoyed sledding this winter. West, also a soil scientist, has analyzed the cleanup methods in the DEQ’s feasibility study, and she sees a combination that would cost less, possibly $12 million, yet yield a site scrubbed clean enough for homes.
She wants to present her findings to agency officials, and the DEQ’s Graham said he would be pleased to meet with West.
Neither the local Huttig contact or lawyer could be reached for comment last week.
Since 1995, one of the many steps Huttig has taken to address its pollution is “hot spot” removal. According to its most recent filing with the SEC, future expenditures are difficult to estimate “because of the uncertainty relating to the final remedy to be selected by the Montana DEQ.”
“As of September 30, 2013, the company has accrued $0.7 million ($700,000) in ‘other non-current liabilities’ for future costs of remediating the site, which management believes represents a reasonable estimate,” reads part of the SEC filing.