Consultant says EPA likely to favor Asa Wood project

by WILL LANGHORNE
The Western News | October 13, 2020 7:00 AM

To help secure the approximately $400,000 needed to clean up the defunct Asa Wood Elementary School, Libby Public Schools is seeking funds through a highly competitive federal program.

EPA officials estimated that the federal Brownfields program will award only 26 grants for clean up projects nationwide this year, according to Christin Hileman, Brownfield specialist.

During an Oct. 8 public meeting on the Asa Wood project, Hileman addressed school administrators on behalf of NewFields, the environmental consulting company that is partnering with the district to write the grant application.

Despite the odds, Hileman said the Asa Wood project has many points in its favor. Unlike many applicants, the school district has a developer that is interested in repurposing the site.

Under the current plan for the property, American Covenant Senior Housing Foundation would turn the school building into an assisted-living facility. Gerald Fritts, chief executive officer of the foundation, told Lincoln County commissioners in July that the remodeled structure would house 45 units and create 22 jobs.

Demographic studies that show Libby’s aging population could benefit from the facility also count toward the district’s application, Hileman said.

American Covenant’s agreement to allow the district and community groups to continue using the property is another unusual feature of the Asa Wood project that EPA officials look favorably upon, Hileman said.

The school district, Libby Food Pantry, Libby Area Community Garden and Girls Scouts could still use their onsite services at Asa Wood under the American Covenant plan. Fritts said in July the site would accommodate a 5,000-square-foot food pantry. The school district, which still uses the Asa Wood kitchen to prepare lunches for students, would likely receive a new onsite kitchen.

“This is not just a for-profit venture,” Hileman said. “This developer is willing to continue to allow the community to benefit and use this space.”

Hildeman noted that the school district might have a better chance of being accepted by the program this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Responding to the coronavirus has preoccupied many local governments and nonprofit organizations that might have otherwise applied for funding.

In the lead up to the grant application, an August inspection of the Asa Wood building found 13 building materials that tested positive for asbestos and an additional six that were assumed to contain asbestos. Inspectors found significant amounts of lead-based paint both on the inside and outside of the structure. They also confirmed four thermostats contain mercury.

NewFields consultants plan to submit three clean up options as part of the school district’s grant application. The first is taking no action. The second alternative involves removing all mercury thermometers, abating all asbestos and encapsulating all lead-based paint in the building. The final most expensive action would include all the cleanup work of option two in addition to abating the roof.

Hileman said the roof would need to be sampled for asbestos as it was not covered by earlier inspections. Were the roof to require abatement, the total cost of the third option would be approximately $396,468.

While also the most labor and time-intensive, NewFields consultants are proposing the third action to the EPA since the American Covenant plan involves remodeling the building’s roof.

The total grant request for the project is $388,000, Hileman said. The school district would be responsible for ponying up 20 percent of the funds, or $77,600. School officials anticipate dividing up their cost-share as $6,032 in in-kind labor and $71,568 in cash.

To complete the cleanup, school district officials will have to seek cost estimates from asbestos abatement contractors. Hileman said the cost of hiring a contractor varies based on the demand for abatement work and how far the contractor has to travel.

The Analysis of Brownfields Cleanup Alternatives and the draft of the grant proposal will be open for public comment until Oct. 22. The documents will be available at the Libby Public Schools website. Hileman said consultants plan to submit the grant application on Oct. 26.

If the district were to receive the grant, the cooperative agreement between Libby schools and the Brownfields Program would begin Oct. 1, 2021. NewFields consultants anticipate the clean up would be complete by October 2022.

Were the school district able to fund the project out of pocket, Hileman said the abatement could take as little as three months.

Hileman said funding through the Brownfields Program goes furthest in communities like Libby. In an urban center with higher property values, American Covenant might be willing to spend $400,000 to complete an abatement project. In smaller communities, the price tag of remediation projects almost always equal or exceed the property value.

Craig Barringer, former Libby superintendent, estimated in June that abatement costs for Asa Wood would outweigh the value of the property by more than $100,000.

“This is why it’s so important for rural communities to have access to these funds because without them we will continue to see properties sit vacant when they’re very usable,” Hileman said.