Montana Pole Water Treatment Plant

Located south of Silver Bow Creek, the Montana Pole Plant site, pictured here, is being readied by DEQ for reuse. 

There is good news on the horizon, the state said Wednesday as it tried to reassure the Council of Commissioners over the Montana Pole Plant site, south of Uptown.

State project manager David Bowers’s 10-minute presentation to update council members on the Department of Environmental Quality’s efforts to ready the former wood treatment plant site for reuse did not reveal new information. But it was the first visit Bowers has paid the commissioners since August.

The controversial site has raised ire in recent months as DEQ has begun to address the fact that one of the contaminants of concern – dioxin – did not respond to the planned remedy. That remedy, encouraging microbes to eat away at carcinogens left behind in the soil by decades of wood treatment – was established around 20 years ago.

The microbes, however, did reduce the other carcinogens, including PCP, to safe levels, according to DEQ. The PCP contamination was the most hazardous of the contamination left at the site. Bowers said that where the dioxin still exists in the soil at unsafe levels, it's "a very discreet, thin layer."

"Once we're below that layer, the dioxin dropped well below (levels considered safe for industry to move in)," Bowers told commissioners.

Bowers said about 24 acres are expected to be available for industrial and commercial use on the site. The state and the Environmental Protection Agency determine usage of a contaminated site based on risk assessment.

Industrial and commercial usage is “more stringent” than recreational use. The state is only required to clean up to recreational use, Bowers said.

Bowers said the 24 acres available for industrial or commercial use means the contamination is 0.03 micrograms per kilogram of the soil or less.

The area that will be capped will comprise about 13 acres. It will have a conditional use restriction because the cap itself will have to be maintained.

The dirt in the areas where the dioxin did not break down in the soil will be excavated. The “dirty dirt” will be buried underneath the 13-acre cap. The cap will contain many protective layers, including a liner.

Addressing concerns that the dioxin will be another “waste in place” remedy, Bowers explained why there are limited options at Montana Pole Plant, which is a separate Superfund site.

“If it was just dioxin, it could be moved,” Bowers told the commissioners. “But it’s a mixture (of contamination). It needs to remain on site. The only other option is incineration, and that’s hundreds of miles away. It would take 50,000 truckloads going to southern Utah. That’s not practical.”

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Contamination levels are still unknown in one spot, bordering the Boulevard neighborhood, where DEQ encouraged the microbes to eat away at the contamination over the years. Bowers said that based on historical data, DEQ expects that that area will also be able to meet industrial level standards.

But DEQ won’t know about that portion of the site until “later in the process.” DEQ has to remove the liner placed there to protect the soil during the treatment process.

Bowers's reassurances that the site is not as bad as it may have at first appeared did not stop commissioners from asking pointed questions and making remarks after Bowers’s presentation.

“When you look at what you’re describing, what landlord would want to purchase this site, knowing all the restrictions and the waste in place?” Commissioner Dan Foley asked. “It’s hard to fathom anyone will take this. The issue is a foregone conclusion. Who wants this?”

Currently, the county has right of first refusal. If the county rejects accepting ownership, the land will belong to the state until DEQ can find a new owner.

Commissioner Cindy Perdue-Dolan also expressed frustration over the cleanup.

“We don’t like the idea of waste in place. We deserve better than that. What happens if the cap fails? What happens if there’s a flood?” Perdue-Dolan asked.

The state is also working on potential 100-year flood issues, Bowers told commissioners. Rainwater is treated. A water treatment plant strips contamination from groundwater before discharging it to Silver Bow Creek. Stormwater that would naturally flow onto the site from elsewhere is being diverted.

The county asked the state to look into alternative methods to treat the dioxin. Bowers said there are "promising, emerging technologies in the field of bioremediation, but they're not achieving cleanup levels."

"If the technology is not better than what we have now, it would not be a good investment of money; it would not minimize the footprint," Bowers said.

County Superfund Coordinator Jon Sesso told commissioners that while the county is holding weekly meetings with DEQ over the state’s progress at the site, "we're not in there deciding for ourselves" what will happen to the site. Sesso said he still expects the state to create a report that will fully investigate alternative methods to clean up dioxin.

"We’re not convinced there's not a better way to treat the waste," Sesso told commissioners. "We're standing by to see if an alternative treatment can do more to get dioxin out of the soil. We're not making any recommendations to council to accept the property unless it has value and provides use to the citizens."

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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