Cleaning Up the Past


p> Under a typically iron-colored March sky, the abandoned buildings of Missoula White Pine Sash stand empty, except for Jim, the gravelly voiced guy who watches the place, patrolling the sprawling grounds in a red Ford Fiesta. Jim keeps an eye on the many mournful acres, dead quiet except for fluttering pigeons and the clank and grind of the nearby railroad yard.

This pall-ridden landscape of industrial collapse would make a dynamite setting for tough-guy rock band publicity photos, or the climactic scene of a particularly clichéd action movie. To a few prospective developers, though, White Pine looks more like an opportune site for future residential and industrial projects-in spite of the fact that it is currently home to an ongoing cleanup effort, an attempt to suck poisons out of the water and vapor trapped beneath the old factory where finished wood products-doors, for instance-once rolled off the line.

If White Pine could be rehabilitated, perhaps life and commerce would return to the blighted property, which, along with the old Champion mill site on the southern banks of the Clark Fork, is one of two places in Montana tabbed for federal Environmental Protection Agency "brown fields" grants. Those grants will pay for studies assessing the level of contamination left behind when White Pine shut down on Christmas Eve, 1996, laying off about 70 workers.

The Missoula White Pine Sash Company has been closed for more than two years. The heavily contaminated site is under review to recieve federal restoration money.
Photo by Chad Harder

Since closure, the empty mill has drained energy from the surrounding neighborhood, the traditional heartland of Missoula's working class. Former mill workers complain of chronic, chemical-caused illness. Some say the presence of the mill and its attendant contamination-particularly fears of PENTA, a nasty carcinogen, lingering in the groundwater-inspired local banks to "red-line" the area, denying basic financial services like mortgage loans.

Though neighborhood activists and city officials say that practice is mostly a thing of the past, many questions will have to be answered before the potential buyers now coming out of the woodwork can change things at White Pine.

According to Aimee Reynolds, a scientist with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, a pair of prospective local buyers have consulted the department about future cleanup plans. Reynolds says Zip Beverage is looking into using the mill buildings as a transportation center. Zip executives could not be reached for comment.

One or more individual investors are considering the desolate land north of the mill buildings as a possible site for a residential development. Reynolds says she doesn't know the names of these would-be landlords, who are represented by Mike Stevenson of Envirocon, the company that's handling current clean-up efforts at White Pine.

These or any other future buyers would have to make a deal with the Huttig Sash and Door Company, which owns White Pine's assets. Connecticut-based Huttig officials failed to return numerous phone calls from the Independent.

Even if the land is sold, Reynolds warns it will be awhile before the industrial legacy of White Pine disappears. "Ground water contamination is very hard to treat and remediate," she says. "We could be looking at a process that will take 30 years. It's not going to be a quick fix."

Reynolds says the DEQ is about to review a draft of a plan that would guide a study of White Pine. That study will assess any risks posed by leftover chemicals in ground water or underground vapor at the White Pine. After that going-over is complete, a comprehensive cleanup project could be plotted. Right now, Envirocon is already processing contaminated water at the site.

"No one is exposed to anything harmful right now," says Envirocon's Brian Douglas. "We're in the early stages of this project. It won't be done in two weeks, that's for sure."

Meanwhile, some of those who lost their jobs when White Pine shut down say they're still dealing with the effects of years spent working with PENTA and other chemicals at the mill.

"I can't prove the health problems of anybody else, but I know I'm not the only one who is sick," says Vicki Morrison, a former long-time mill worker. Morrison says she suffers chronic fatigue, bouts of acute dizziness and a host of other complications that doctors have been unable-or, as she sees it, unwilling-to diagnose. She has her own theory.

"I had to breathe in PENTA and dioxins five days a week," she says.

Aimee Reynolds says the DEQ will review and release the draft risk assessment plan for White Pine some time in the next month, with public hearings to follow.

Peter Nielsen of the Missoula City/County Health Department says his agency has been monitoring health risks associated with White Pine. He says a thorough examination of the site's environmental and social impacts could open a path to a revitalized, redeveloped future at the northern foot of the Scott Street Bridge.

"We want to see that site benefit the Northside," he says. "There are impacts to the Northside, economically and environmentally, as long as it remains as it is. What folks are concerned about is getting into something that then becomes much more complicated and protracted than they originally foresaw. There is value in the property, but there are also risks, so the trick is to balance those factors."

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