EPA regional administrator tours Old Sawmill District, talks Brownfields
(Missoula Current) Almost two decades have elapsed since the city of Missoula received its first Brownfields loan for the Old Sawmill District from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and an EPA leader is pleased with the result.
On Wednesday, EPA Region 8 administrator KC Becker and her staff flew into Missoula mainly to tour some of the Clark Fork River Superfund sites, including the Smurfit Stone Mill site.
But she took the time to stop by Missoula’s Old Sawmill District to see what effect her agency’s Brownfields Revolving Loan Fund had had on the site of a 46-acre lumber mill that stopped operating in the early 1990s.
Unlike the challenges of Superfund sites, the changes in the Old Sawmill District were more cheerful.
“Sometimes what EPA is doing is we’re talking about a lot of pollution, and cleanups can take a lot of time. But Brownfields are often really great success stories like this,” Becker said admiring the old sink logs that form the pavilions in Silver Park. “We knew that Missoula was a leader when it comes to a lot of environmental issues, but certainly on Brownfields. I live in Boulder, Colorado, and we consider Missoula like a sister city. A lot of shared values.”
Brownfields are locations where legacy pollution from a previous industry persists, keeping the area from being developed. In the mid-20th century, Missoula had four lumber mills around town, which used various chemicals to process wood and pulp. When they went out of business, the properties just sat, essentially abandoned because the soils were peppered with pollutants.
In 1995, the EPA’s Brownfields Program was developed to provide funds to assess and clean up brownfields. In 2004, the city of Missoula was awarded a Brownfields Revolving Loan Fund grant of more than $1.7 million, which it used to get other funding - more than $100 million in private investment - to clean up the Old Sawmill District so it could be developed.
Missoula Mayor Jordan Hess described how the area used to be mainly dirt yards and a few buildings surrounded with a barbed wire-topped fence so it attracted homeless people, vandalism, fires and crime. Now the area still attracts homeless people, but it has attracted residents and businesses too.
Hess said about $13.5 million in tax increment financing is being used to repay the loan, which is then paying for work on other Missoula brownfield sites. The Brownfields Loan will sunset in 2030.
“The EPA money was the first step,” Hess said.
After a short introduction at the pavilion, Hess and some city staff led Becker on a brief tour of a portion of Silver Park and the new buildings along Cregg Lane. Tyler Walls, Missoula City Brownfields program specialist, pointed to the light poles in the parking lot adjacent to the park and explained that they also served the purpose of venting methane from underground.
“We’re in the ninth year of methane mitigation and monitoring. (Montana Department of Environmental Quality) thought it might take 10 years. But the levels are looking low enough to where we can start the process of no longer monitoring in years to come,” Walls said. “We’ll find out in the next year or two whether or not we can keep those in place. If they’re not hurting anything, might as well keep them there.”
Hess and Becker chatted about other brownfield sites and all the growth happening around Missoula. The variety of housing and businesses in the Sawmill District are a microcosm of change occurring in Missoula as a whole.
Becker said the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act tripled the amount of money allocated to the Brownfields Revolving Loan Fund to $1.5 billion. At the end of May, EPA Region 8 announced that Montana received $5.7 million for brownfields projects in Kalispell, Great Falls, Billings, Wolf Point, Glendive and Glasgow, in addition to flood-prone areas near Red Lodge, Columbus, Joliet and the Northern Cheyenne and Crow reservations.
But more money is coming down the pipeline. Another round of funding is coming up and Missoula, with its robust brownfields program and projects in the pipeline, is well situated to get future funding, Becker said.
“Thank you for showing us this,” Becker said. “It is such a thoughtful redevelopment. This is really an outstanding example of how Brownfields EPA and local government partnering can make great things happen in the community.”
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.