East Helena Public Schools’ acceptance of about 50 donated acres comes with environmental cleanup costs but also a vision for future school expansion.
The school district expects to soon close on the Dartman property just north on Valley Drive from Radley School -- a donation from the Montana Environmental Trust Group, which owns the land and controls assets from the Asarco settlement.
While no specific plans are proposed for new school construction, the district feels it needs to be proactive as it approaches capacity with anticipated future growth, said Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer. With current enrollment at about 1,200 students, a 1,300-student capacity and new housing going up, school officials believe facilities accommodating about 1,800 students are needed.
“It may not be today but maybe 10 years down the road we need to plan to the future,” he said. “So we’re looking at the property as a long-term investment.”
Dartman has advantages over other properties the district considered in a 2014 Great West Engineering feasibility report, Whitmoyer noted. The location allows connection to East Helena city services. Estimated cleanup costs also fell lower than other sites. And remediating the property, which has elevated lead levels, progresses the community as it deals with the challenges of Superfund status.
“The kind of cool thing here is the piece of property is currently contaminated and has limited usage,” Whitmoyer said. “Through this deal we can take this property, remediate it and put it back into a healthy condition for the health of the community.”
The old Dartman ranch totals more than 150 acres. Historic testing showed elevated lead levels, with at least one sample exceeding 4,000 parts per million. The standard for residential cleanup is 500 parts per million or less.
Dartman has seen some remediation of flood channels and a former residence in 1998 and 2002 due to elevated lead and arsenic levels, according to EPA reports. More recent testing shows elevated lead levels still exist across the entirety of the 50-acre donation, topping out at 2,910 parts per million.
Building a school or schools on the site means the district paying remediation costs. The cleanup plan is similar to what occurred at East Valley Middle School using extensive deep tilling, a process of mixing contaminated surface soils with clean material underneath until contamination dilutes to safe levels.
What the property will not become is the home of a future high school, Whitmoyer said. The site is not large enough for a high school while it could support two elementary schools and one middle school, he said.
A bill last year to give East Helena an option on becoming its own high school district did not get legislative approval but maintains sizable community support.
The district contracted Olympus Technical Services to apply for a grant with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation that, if successful, will infuse $500,000 for the cleanup. The application and conceptual plan calls for a mix of remediation methods averaging nearly $26,000 per acre, with the majority of the nearly $1.3 million in cleanup costs not coming until construction.
Olympus would not answer questions about the conceptual plan or related grant application, citing a company policy against talking to media, and referred questions to Whitmoyer.
The project’s conceptual plan calls for deep tilling much of the property while areas will be capped with clean material or asphalt parking lots while playgrounds and other similar areas would be stripped of surface soil and replaced with clean soil.
The DNRC grant, which is subject to approval by the 2017 Legislature, would essentially cover costs of deep tilling the property. The grant is “critically important” to the district, Whitmoyer said, but ultimately comes down to the decision of 150 legislators and the governor.
Without the grant, the district would have to finance cleanup fully, which it must do via bonding for the remaining cleanup and future construction costs, he said.
“We’re going to go to the fullest length that we possibly can to be protective without extravagantly spending money just for the sake of spending money,” Whitmoyer said. “Because we’re a Superfund site, there’s very limited opportunity for additional assistance from outside sources, so this grant is a good opportunity for us.”
The current conceptual plan and grant application includes several differences in design from the Great West siting report. Great West identifies soil removal and replacement as the only viable remediation method due to rocky soil conditions that make deep tilling more expensive. The report also shows a north to south 50-acre footprint along Valley Drive, as opposed to the current east to west footprint.
Great West project manager Todd Kuxhaus explained his firm’s report as a planning level document with an overview of multiple sites. The report is intentionally conservative in its cost estimations, he said, adding that the preliminary nature of the analysis means that more refined analysis could show deep tilling or combined methods as viable.
Whitmoyer noted that the EPA’s preferred and much more cost effective remediation method is deep tilling, and the grant application notes concerns among East Helenans of the stream of heavy trucks needed to transport contaminated soil.
The east to west footprint was largely driven by METG with the donation, said East Helena School Board Chairman Scott Walter. As the trust looks to future sale and development of its property, access to Valley Drive likely factored into the offer, he said.
METG East Helena Director of Cleanup & Redevelopment Cindy Brooks said the beneficiaries, made up of federal and state agencies, approved the donation rather than ask for fair market value. Discussions with the EPA, Montana Department of Environmental Quality and Montana Department of Justice all led to approval of the donation after examination of the district’s cleanup plan, she said.
“It is an ideal property for the school and they desperately need to expand their facilities,” Brooks said, while also praising the district’s decision to be proactive.
The trust faces an ultimately unknown cleanup cost as the EPA moves toward a final remediation plan, called a corrective measures study. The $94 million settlement with Asarco for East Helena has already partially funded interim measures and cleanup at the smelter site.
With finite assets funding yet to be determined remediation costs, Brooks was asked why the trust is willing to simply give its assets away.
Much of the challenge with the contaminated lands comes with the stigma they carry, she said.
“We’ve been working with the district on several different parcels back to 2010, and we’ve incurred technical costs, legal fees and technical teams to put together concepts to pursue for our beneficiaries and all the time incurring costs to the trust,” Brooks said. “The trust has a responsibility to clean up the site, to manage the funds to facilitate and sell all of its land holdings, and it’s quite possible we won’t be able to get the best deal of the century.”
Brooks believes the remediation and development of Dartman may serve as a model for future development and sale of trust lands.
“To get a project as big and complicated as East Helena kicked off, the first, it could be a catalyst, and I believe once East Helena Public Schools develops that property, it speaks to the viability of all the rest of the property,” she said.