Flathead Beacon: In Northwest Montana, Brownfields Funding Turns Blight into Might

by Micah Drew

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) received a $2 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to complete environmental assessments and spur development at Brownfields sites across the state including in Libby.

Brownfields sites are underutilized properties that may be contaminated due to a previous use, such as old gas stations, wrecking yards or dry cleaners, or have the perception of contamination that complicates future use.

“Oftentimes the perception prevents the redevelopment of properties until you actually quantify it,” said Jason Seyler, DEQ’s Brownfields coordinator. “Once it becomes known entity, it can be addressed and it’s always going to be cheaper to address contamination now than in the future.”

The funding was made possible through the bipartisan infrastructure bill that Montana’s U.S. Senator Jon Tester negotiated last year.

“EPA is proud to support Montana’s efforts to invest in property assessment, cleanup and redevelopment projects in the communities that need them the most,” EPA Regional Administrator KC Becker stated in a press release. “We look forward to seeing these Brownfields funds improve community health and create new economic opportunities.”

In Libby the long history of environmental contamination stems from the vermiculite mine that operated from 1919 to 1990. The levels of harmful asbestos and vermiculite contamination led to Libby’s designation as a Superfund site in 2002.

While the EPA has cleaned up nearly 1,500 business in the area, asbestos contamination still lingers in some buildings in the area, including the Old Pioneer Club House, which is proposed as the future home of the Libby food pantry, and the historic Hotel Libby. DEQ will utilize a portion of the grant funding to assess both sites. According to the grant application, the food pantry will lose access to its current site by the end of 2022, and the most viable option is the Club House; however, the site has an unknown amount of hazardous building material that must be identified prior to renovation.

The Libby Hotel closed in 1970, but a new owner hopes to restore the 22-room historic building and restaurant to revitalize the town’s Main Street. Critical repairs are needed to the roof of the structure, but an asbestos assessment must be completed prior to any work.

“When industries change and communities develop, Montana’s towns and cities are often left to foot the bill on cleanup efforts,” according to Tester.

In addition to DEQ, several other Montana agencies were recipients of EPA funding, but one application submitted by the city of Kalispell targeting property abutting the new Parkline Trail was not selected.

The proposed grant request was for $500,000 to assess the Kalispell Center Mall and the “Cherry District,” a 20-block section of town just to the north between 5th Avenue West, Center Street, U.S. Highway 2 and U.S. Highway 93. Roughly half the funding was to be used for development planning along the Parkline.

“Kalispell is a city of 24,596 with a 350,000 square-foot albatross sitting on 25-acres of petroleum Brownfields at the center of the Core Area,” according to the grant application. “Immediately north of that albatross are another 25-acres (roughly 10 city blocks) including unresolved Brownfield sites pensively awaiting direction.”

According to Katharine King, the city of Kalispell’s Brownsfields coordinator, the corridor has long been a priority for her department.

“We historically have prioritized that railroad corridor because historic uses would indicate there’s a higher concentration of Brownfields properties in that area,” King said. “There’s nothing really magical about that area, but nothing negative about it either. It’s just what it is.”

The railroad tracks through the center of town were once home to an abundance of industrial sites including gas stations, engine repair sites and mills. There are several vacant sites and eyesores within the district, including one the application describes as having the “the skeletal remains of a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket suspended in the air.”

With the official opening of the Parkline Trail, the city expects the railroad corridor is poised for reinvigoration.

“Reusing resources, and taking on infill projects, that’s really efficient for a municipality,” King said. “As a community we are generally concerned about that because we want to maintain our open spaces and protect our water quality.”

“Brownfields is a great place to start, so we’ll go back to them, test to make sure the property is safe for people and if there’s some concern, we’ll go clean it up,” she continued. “Then life goes on, and the good news is with infill projects like the Cherry District, we’ve already got the roads and infrastructure in place so they’re ready to use.”

King said she plans to reapply for the grant for the next wave of funding, and while acknowledging the competitive nature of the funding, points to Kalispell’s history of successfully utilizing EPA funding for Brownfields such as the Glacier Rail Park and the old CHS grain elevator site.

“In the next five years we will have unprecedented investment in infrastructure,” the DEQ’s Seyler added. “It’s the time to take advantage of this critical funding.”