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Missoula County, city cap week urging DEQ to order residential cleanup of rail yard

Currently, DEQ has recommended the site be cleaned to industrial and commercial standards, a move that would eliminate future residential development on the large parcel of land. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

With the future of the downtown rail yard hinging on a pending decision by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, both the city and county of Missoula capped the week with letters urging the agency to ensure the site is cleaned to residential standards.

Currently, DEQ has recommended the site be cleaned to industrial and commercial standards, a move that would eliminate future residential development on the large parcel of land.

The Missoula City Council on Wednesday unanimously passed a resolution calling that recommendation unacceptable, and Missoula County followed on Thursday with a letter of its own.

“It’s a fairly anemic cleanup plan that doesn’t clean the site to residential standards,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “If we truly want to realize the vision in the Missoula Downtown Master Plan, that’s what needs to happen.”

The downtown fueling and switching yard owned by Burlington Northern was listed as a state Superfund site in 1994 and remains contaminated with free product diesel and other compounds related to industrial activity.

According to DEQ, it must consider “the present and reasonably anticipated future uses” of the facility. For now, the agency doesn’t believe those uses include housing.

Like the city, the county disagrees.

“This is right in the heart of a very residential area, and it should be cleaned up to residential standards,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “My sense is the railroads are tremendously powerful. There’s no certainty this will be done right.”

DEQ’s current cleanup proposal involves bioventing the petroleum contaminants in the groundwater and subsurface soils, allowing them to biodegrade. The city’s Brownfields coordinator said the process could take 20 years to net results.

The county notes that soil levels of petroleum hydrocarbons and metals exceed residential screening values throughout the site. But under the assumption that future use of the entire yard will remain industrial, there is no plan to remove the contaminated surface soils.

That would eliminate future residential development, the city and county contend.

“The need for housing has never been greater in Missoula,” the county writes in its letter to DEQ. “The potential that exists with the rail yard between the railroad tracks and I-90 is the single largest opportunity to provide much needed housing in proximity to employment, shopping and services.”

Cleanup advocates believe that the potential responsible party, in this case Burlington Northern, should be responsible for residential-level cleanup. If DEQ decides otherwise, advocates contend, then taxpayers will be responsible for such costs at some point down the road.

The county cites a number of similar examples, including the White Pine and Sash property, the Missoula Sawmill and the former Bonner Mill. All three properties required some form of taxpayer dollars to subsidize higher level clean-up needed for redevelopment.

“Barring our involvement, or other folks vocal advocacy for a more stringent cleanup, chances are it would not happen,” said Strohmaier. “The same thing could have been said for White Pine Sash on the Northside. Had there not been the push back and local advocacy for a more complete cleanup there, I doubt it would have happened.”

The county also believes that if Burlington Northern agreed to clean the site to residential standards, it could easily recover the costs by selling the property to downtown developers.

“I would imagine an economic scenario where it would be to their advantage to clean this up thoroughly and then sell it as residential property,” said Slotnick. “They’d get their money back if they did it right.”

City of Missoula urges DEQ to ensure rail yard cleanup meets residential standards