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GREAT FALLS — Cascade County has agreed to pay $4 million to an oilseed milling company to settle an eight-year-old lawsuit and begin cleaning up a plume of petroleum and other solvents found under the Montana Specialty Mills' property.

The mill sued the county over the pollution in 1998, alleging the contaminants leaked from the adjacent County Shop. A trial was set to begin in August.

Under an out-of-court deal reached last week, the county will take over ownership of the 5.8 acres where Montana Specialty Mills sits near the Missouri River. The county plans to move its shop and clean up the plume there and on the mill property.

A three-year county property tax levy will be imposed to raise money for the cleanup. The new tax is expected to cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $38 a year, and will be on November property tax bills.

A public vote is not required.

"We're uncomfortable being in this situation and with the amount of tax dollars being used," County Commissioner Lance Olson said. "But after investigating, we know that this is indeed the best option for the taxpayers and the community in the long term."

Once the cleanup is finished, the county would like to sell the land for commercial development, he said.

"The property will need to be tested again before it can be sold," Olson said. "It's close to the fairgrounds, so I'd like to see a nice hotel and restaurant go in there."

Montana Specialty Mills President Steve Chambers was out of the office Friday and could not be reached for comment.

"It's my understanding that (Montana Specialty Mills) are in the preliminary stages of looking at new sites," County Deputy Civil Attorney Greg Bonilla said.

The business and county shop sit within a 45-acre brownfield area, meaning the land is polluted but can be cleaned up to create usable land. An oil refinery sat on part of the property in the 1920s.

"This pollution plume is very old," Bonilla said. "The newest part probably occurred more than 20 years ago."

Cleanup of the site could begin this fall. The state Petroleum Tank Compensation Board is expected to pay for about $2 million of the project, Olson said.

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