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Keeping brownfields brown

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City and state officials say a bill moving through the Montana Legislature could further hamstring cleanup efforts at the languishing former White Pine Sash and Door property in Missoula's Northside by weakening Montana's Comprehensive Environmental Cleanup and Responsibility Act.

"It seems that the public's representatives are attempting to raise the bar for the public, the folks that they represent, to be able to protect themselves from hazardous materials," says Missoula Office of Planning and Grants Director Mike Barton.

For decades White Pine treated wood products with pentachlorophenol flake (PCP), or penta, often contaminated with dioxin dissolved in diesel fuel, on the property just off of Scott Street. Over the years, those carcinogenic chemicals bled into the soil and subsurface water. Because of lingering contamination, the property in 1994 was listed as a state Superfund site.

More than 15 years later, roughly 30 acres of the property remains contaminated. That's largely because getting White Pine's former owner, Huttig Building Products of St. Louis, Mo., on board with clean-up efforts hasn't been easy.

"The tension that you have here is the so-called responsible parties don't want to be responsible for a whole lot," Barton says.

Barton now fears House Bill 434, sponsored by Rep. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Helena, would open new legal avenues to dispute remediation demands, thereby enabling polluters in Missoula to further skirt clean-up responsibilities.

"Currently, a responsible party can litigate a final order," Barton says. "This bill appears to allow the responsible party to litigate all of the steps along the way."

State officials are also keeping a cautious eye on the bill. Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Director Richard Opper says passage of HB 434 would enable polluters to legally contest even minute remediation requests from DEQ, hindering cleanup efforts not just in Missoula but across the state.

"As far as I'm concerned, that bill is public enemy number one," Opper says.

Neither Fitzpatrick nor Huttig responded to requests for comment.

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