County to act as applicant for Asa Wood project

| June 16, 2020 8:43 AM

The Lincoln County Board of Commissioners agreed to apply for a federal brownfields program to cover the cost of removing asbestos from the defunct Asa Wood Elementary School.

The board voted unanimously June 10 to lead the effort at the behest of Tina Oliphant of the Kootenai River Development Council and Craig Barringer, superintendent of the Libby Public School District. The application allows EPA officials to do an environmental assessment of the facility.

The school building — slated for sale — is a good match for the federal program, Oliphant said. Sites otherwise poised for redevelopment but tainted by contaminants often qualify for federal help as brownfields. The list of examples includes former gas stations, auto repair shops and residential buildings where asbestos was used in the construction.

“This is bigger than Libby, this is all of rural Montana — anyplace with old schools [or hospitals],” Oliphant said. “I want to make sure we set a really strong precedent here so that every time this happens we don’t have a big delay and a lot of conversations, we can just move forward.”

Built in the 1950s, Asa Wood last hosted students in 2011. While tax dollars go to maintaining the structure, it is mostly used by the school district as storage space. Several community groups, including the Libby Food Pantry, also use the facility.

Representatives with American Covenant Senior Housing Foundation approached district officials last year with a plan to potentially repurpose the land. The Kalispell-based organization pitched buying the property and redeveloping it as an assisted living facility.

School officials partnered with American Covenant and the Libby City Council in helping to pay for a market study. The economic analysis showed that Libby was ripe for such a facility.

But as part of the sale agreement, the school district must pay for the cleanup of any asbestos. While a bit of asbestos settled in the exterior walls as a remnant of Libby’s vermiculite mining days, it also was used in the building’s flooring materials and used around its pipes.

The latter contamination makes Asa Wood a good fit for the brownfields program. Because the school is located in a Superfund site complicates matters. The EPA will want to perform due diligence, Oliphant said. The environmental assessment is part of that effort, she said.

“They are clearly two different contaminants, but they’ll have to do a lot of vetting,” Oliphant said. “They would bear the cost of this and the burden, that’s what this program does. If you think of the consequences of this, it goes way beyond Asa Wood to anything in town that has asbestos and any other contaminant, like gasoline, etc., that ever wants to be repurposed.”

County Commissioner Jerry Bennett (D-2) asked whether the county would be asked to lead the application for any future brownfields applications. When Oliphant and Barringer first approached the board for help, commissioners wondered whether the school district or City of Libby would make a better applicant than the county.

Oliphant reiterated June 10 that state DEQ officials told them that the county was the preferred applicant.

“I don’t think this is something that is ever going to go away,” said County Commissioner Josh Letcher (D-3). “We are just going to have to get good at applications.”

Bennett agreed, but stressed the need to ensure the county was not held financially liable for the cleanup.

“At some point, it’s going to have to be cleaned up, regardless,” he said. “We’re not going to let the building fall in.”

Letcher made the motion to submit the application and Bennett seconded it. County Commissioner Mark Peck (D-1) was not in attendance.