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DEQ extends comments for Missoula railyard cleanup; advocates seek residential

The northside railyard skirting downtown Missoula has been in operation since the 19th century. The resulting impacts have left the site contaminated with free product diesel, petroleum hydrocarbons and metals. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality on Monday agreed to grant an extension for comments related to the railroad fueling and switching yard in downtown Missoula, and how the site should be cleaned of contaminants and for what purpose.

The property, owned by Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad, was listed as a state Superfund site in the 1990s. The time has now come to rid the property of various chemicals stemming from fuel spills and a century of industrial use.

Last week, the window for public comments was set to close on April 2. The DEQ on Monday announced a 30-day extension as requested by city and county officials, who felt the process was poorly advertised.

“I’m delighted to see that DEQ has extended the comment period,” said Missoula County commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “We need a cleanup that aligns with the vision of the Downtown Master Plan for this area, and providing extra time to comment will allow for the city, county, and community to provide meaningful input.”

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality is set to select its final remedy for the site after the public comment period closes on May 2.

That remedy looks to clean the fueling and switching yard to industrial and commercial standards only. But the city and county, along with other downtown and neighborhood advocates, want it cleaned to residential standards.

Area resident and Missoula City Council member Heidi West is advocating for more.

“This is essentially the only chance we have to get this site cleaned up,” said West. “It’s just so short sited to just settle for commercial and industrial cleanup. This is the only chance we have and it should be done to a higher standard. It will never be anything more than industrial and commercial, and that just closes off all other options.”

The northside railyard skirting downtown Missoula has been in operation since the 19th century, serving as a major freight corridor for products heading east and west.

The resulting impacts have left the site contaminated with free product diesel, petroleum hydrocarbons, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds and metals.

According to DEQ, the agency must consider “the present and reasonably anticipated future uses” of the facility. The proposed remedy for the property doesn’t currently include residential uses, something city and county officials regard as shortsighted.

“It’s a $3.5 million solution that really doesn’t go very far,” said West. “Everything in the cleanup plan is based on the conclusion that the best future use of the site is industrial or commercial. I think that’s a really flawed starting point.”

The new Downtown Master Plan lays out a vision for redevelopment of the fueling and switching yard when the opportunity arises, including residential uses.

If DEQ does select industrial-commercial uses as an adequate level of cleanup, city and county officials contend it would all but nullify the community vision adopted in the Downtown Master Plan.

The plan visualizes an extension of downtown Missoula that transforms the fueling and switching yard into a “vibrant, walkable, mixed-use neighborhood.”

As a result, the city and other advocates are urging DEQ to consider all possible plans for the railroad district, including those created after extensive public input.

“We went through this really extensive downtown master planning process that was really inclusive and had lots of residential participation,” said West. “It has a visionary description of what this area could be in our neighborhood. That reflects the residential voice in a lot of ways.”

DEQ cleanup proposal for Missoula railyard could eliminate city’s residential plans