Missoula County plans to add its comments to the proposed cleanup of the railyard skirting the northern edge of downtown Missoula, joining other advocates in pushing for a remedy that prepares the site for future residential development.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality last month extended its deadline for comments from April 2 to May 1. That gives advocates more time to weigh in and muster the voices they hope will changes DEQ's current recommendation, which goes no further than industrial cleanup.

“If they go forward as proposed, those soils on site will only be cleaned to commercial or industrial standards,” said Todd Seib of the City-County Health Department. “Future residential development would rely on the developer or the taxpayers to foot the bill for additional cleanup for that type of development.”

Initial concerns over potential contamination in and around the fueling and switching yard surfaced in the 1980s. The property was eventually listed as a state Superfund site in 1994.

DEQ found the site to be contaminated with free product diesel, petroleum hydrocarbons, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds and metals. Once the public comment period closes, the agency will select its final remedy.

“There's some good arguments to be made for residential cleanup,” Seib said. “We really pushed DEQ for residential cleanup at the White Pine site. That resulted in almost an instant development for residential once that was cleaned up that way.”

The former White Pine Sash property off Scott Street in the Northside district sat abandoned for years. Like portions of the railyard, it was also saturated with chemicals from past industrial use.

DEQ initially proposed a cleanup plan for commercial and industrial uses, though encouragement from local government and a strong neighborhood lobby led DEQ to eventually recommend a remedy for residential cleanup.

Now, a sizable residential project is set to break ground on a portion of the property, resulting in several hundred new housing units, including 70 units set aside as permanently affordable. The city has similar goals for the abandoned switching yard.

“The first recommendation isn't always the best one,” said Seib. “Based on the unified voices I'm hearing on this issue, from community groups to the Downtown Master Plan and the city, everyone is saying the same thing.”

The county hopes to win the support of the Missoula development community and Chamber of Commerce in pushing for residential cleanup.

“If they got involved, I can imagine the governor listening to them,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “Given the configuration of Helena, the businesses voices will probably win the day.”