Montana Public Radio

Libby, Lincoln County Plan Beyond Superfund

Nov 18, 2015

Libby and Troy are beginning a campaign to re-brand themselves as places to live, visit and invest in – trying to shake off more than a decade-old economic shadow.

"We’re building on some past efforts from local organizations," Tina Oliphant of Libby & Troy 2020 Initiative said. 

Oliphant is the executive director of the Kootenai River Development Council. She is working with Lincoln County, the University of Montana School of Business and a Missoula ad agency.

"Partners Creative and University of Montana are gathering local input from our communities, from our individuals and citizens, to create our story and to express that story," Oliphant said.  "It’s going to be a pretty powerful platform to move ahead and get beyond this stigma of asbestos."

When asbestos was found in the early 2000s, Libby turned into a Superfund site. The town lost major employers and skilled employees. Asbestos made people sick and the community lost its economic identify.

As the asbestos cleanup enters its final years the community needs a new story to tell, Oliphant said.

"There are going to be intercepts at the local grocery stores, hardware stores, bars, interviewing people," Oliphant said. "There is a lot of community support for this and that is to gather the input, what are our stories. What we want to present is based on reality."

Oliphant said the stories about Libby and asbestos are being told from outside the town. She hopes that by taking control of those stories the community can again take control of its economy and future.

That positive narrative has a lot of work to do. As of this September, Lincoln County had the highest unemployment rate of any county in Montana, 7.3 percent. In the last decade, that number has at times reached 15 percent. 

Lincoln County developers want make Libby’s story one where new business can bring work to a town struggling to produce family-wage jobs.

That hinges on a partial Superfund delisting of one site in Libby. Town leaders want to redevelop the largely vacant 400-acre Kootenai Industrial Park south of Libby. 

Kootenai Industrial Park as seen from above.
Credit Brett McCully, Director of Operations for Lincoln County Port Authority

Rebecca Thomas is the Environmental Protection Agency’s Libby team leader. She said the industrial park could move toward economic recovery before the rest of the town.

“We still probably have another three to five years of work to do," Thomas said. "But for that industrial park, the work we need to do is completed in terms of removing the asbestos.”

Thomas expects the final remedy decision for the cleanup in Libby by the end this year, and the process of delisting the industrial park can move forward. The Lincoln County Port Authority and the Kootenai River Development Council expect the delisting to happen next year and they want to start redeveloping in the industrial park at the end of 2016.

“There are a lot of things to do between now and a year from now," the EPA's Rebecca Thomas said. "And part of this certainly involves a public comment period. But I think it is doable.”

The Kootenai Industrial Park was once connected to the BNSF main rail line allowing businesses in the park to send products around the country. But the spur connecting the park is in bad shape and unusable right now.

Director of Operations for the Port Authority Brett McCully said rebuilding the rail line is key to promoting the industrial park. 

“This is a large project. It will take a year, maybe a little bit longer – 18 months to compete," McCully said. "But once that is done we will then be a very attractive entity to folks who would utilize rail for exporting, possibly coming here on truck, offloading and reloading and putting on rail and shipping it out.”

McCully said the half-mile rail line will cost around a million and a half dollars to rehab. A preliminary funding report will lay out funding options. The money is expected come from a combination of public grants and Port Authority funds.

An industrial park that creates a transportation platform for future businesses will be a good start to rebuild Libby’s economy, McCully said. 

“It really is the lifeblood for our future, what we’re looking at. We are not on a major interstate or thoroughfare. The rail is a huge asset that we right now do not have access to. That is our major goal, to get that rehabilitated and running," McCully said. 

If the industrial park is removed from Superfund listing, it may be eligible for federal funds under EPA’s Brownfields program, which can help further the rehab.

The Port Authority’s McCully said Lincoln County’s historic identity is in natural resource extraction. He said that’s the way it was for a long time before the mining and logging companies left and asbestos was found.

Because of public perception and national policies about natural resource extraction McCully isn’t sure if Libby can ever be as big as it once was. But he hopes that over time Lincoln Country can rebuild a sense of pride and sustainability in its economy.