Want to revitalize a depressed economy? The EPA can help.

A Montana town is using an obscure program to help clean up contaminated areas.

 

This story is part of The Montana Gap project, produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network.

Anaconda has been part of the largest Superfund site in the United States since 1983, when the Environmental Protection Agency began working to clean up 300 square miles of heavy-metal contaminated soil left by more than a century of copper smelting. So far that effort has meant cleaning up over 350 contaminated yards in town and the surrounding area and transforming 250 acres of an old smelter site into a world-class golf course.

Superfund, however, cannot fix everything — in particular for downtown commercial properties, which are essential for economic development and revitalization of rural Montana towns like Anaconda but have been blighted by real or perceived contamination that was unrelated to the smelter.

In an effort to find other means to combat blight and reinvigorate the downtown business district, Anaconda, Butte and the Southwest Montana region are looking at another EPA program that until recently had been unavailable to Superfund sites, one that has seen hundreds of properties identified and cleaned up throughout the state: Brownfields.

In urban planning parlance, a “brownfield” is simply a property where either the presence or perceived presence of contamination by pollutants or hazardous substances prevents entrepreneurs from redeveloping or reusing it for industrial or commercial purposes. In 1993, the EPA established the Brownfields Program to provide funding for environmental assessments and cleanup of eligible properties to remove what would otherwise be an obstacle to their returning to productive use.

Since 2003, approximately $10 million in Brownfields assessment grants and revolving loan funds has been disbursed to eight economic development agencies, local governments and coalitions in Montana through the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), covering 41 of the state’s 56 counties. The seven counties making up Southwest Montana – Anaconda-Deer Lodge, Beaverhead, Butte-Silver Bow, Granite, Jefferson, Madison and Powell – are not among them due to the fact that until recently the EPA was prohibited by law from disbursing Brownfields funds to communities that already receive Superfund support.

This legal barrier was put in place to prevent property owners from “double-dipping” into federal funding, said Brandon Kingsbury, DEQ’s Brownfields coordinator for petroleum cleanup. It wasn’t until August of 2016 that the EPA relented, lifted the barrier and began approving Brownfields assessment grants to individual property owners and developers within Superfund sites, Kingsbury said. “That was the green light,” he said. “We’re excited to do more.”

In the hope of acquiring a larger pot of funding for their communities, Anaconda Local Development Corporation, Butte-Silver Bow Local Development Corporation and Headwaters RC&D, which serves the seven aforementioned Southwest Montana counties, applied jointly for Brownfields funding that same year.

  • True Brew before remediation.

    Photo courtesy of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
  • True Brew after it received assistance from the Great Falls Development Corporation’s Brownfields revolving loan fund to clean up contaminated commercial properties, including this former gas station and automotive shop.

    Photo courtesy of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
  • Kaste’s Department Store before remediation.

    Photo courtesy of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
  • The residents of Big Sandy raised over $600,000 to build a new public library where Kaste’s Department Store once stood after the owner donated the vacant building to Chouteau County in 2008. Before it could be properly demolished and redeveloped, however, the property needed to undergo an environmental assessment, which was paid for by the Bear Paw Development Corporation’s Brownfields program, and when asbestos was found throughout the building, the county received a sub-grant from Bear Paw’s revolving loan fund under Brownfields to cover the costs of asbestos abatement.

    Photo courtesy of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

The program is a merit-based national grant competition, however, and their application did not score high enough to receive it. Only two were awarded in the entire state that year: Bear Paw Development Corporation, located in Havre covering five counties on Montana’s Highline, and the City of Kalispell, both receiving $400,000 to conduct assessments.

Undeterred, they applied again and are awaiting word on whether they’ve been approved or not. Jim Davison, executive director of the Anaconda Local Development Corporation who has been “literally fighting for 20 years” to bring Brownfields to Anaconda, said the program would address problems that Superfund cannot. “Not all cleanup is Superfund cleanup,” Davison said. “There are lots of areas in any community where there are waste and other issues that need cleaning up to reuse the properties. There may be hazardous materials, or the perception of hazardous materials such as fuel or asbestos, chemical spills or solvents, and that makes it difficult to reuse these properties. So how do we go build on a dirty piece of property? Or do we build on a new property, and what’s the cost of that?”

Having to pay upwards of $20,000 to conduct one environmental assessment just to see if a property actually is contaminated – let alone pay potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars more for cleanup – can kill a project before it begins, Davison said.

That’s why local development agencies in Montana are so keen on the Brownfields Program, because it allows commercially viable properties to come back into use rather than waste away.

One city that has benefited from the program is Havre. Paul Tuss, Bear Paw Development Corporation executive director, said there is “no better economic development tool in our toolbox” than Brownfields.

Tuss gave the example of the Short Stop, a former gas station and convenience store, where subsequent to its closure it was discovered there was a “very significant” petroleum leak coming from underground.

“It’s a prime location, a great property,” Tuss said. “We used the funds to mitigate and eradicate the contamination, we took the soil that had been contaminated with petroleum and replaced it with clean soil. The reality is that is a property that would have remained unusable because no one could receive financing on it if the contamination wasn’t cleaned up. We went to work to clean it up, and it has transitioned into Havre’s newest real estate office. We’ve transitioned a convenience store into a very nice, modern real estate office.”

Another example Tuss gave was of an old corner gas station across the street from his office that is now becoming a brewery. “It’s a real 1930s Art Deco kind of gas station,” Tuss said. “The contamination was discovered and has been cleaned up, and we have an entrepreneur who is transitioning it into a microbrewery... We’re turning a property that is almost worse than worthless and making it part of the vibrancy of downtown Havre.”

“That’s the whole purpose of Brownfields. It’s an economic development tool that communities can use to not have to build something new but take something that’s already there, cleaning it up and reusing it in a productive way.”

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