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Work plans to assess the environmental and human health risks at a former pulp mill south of Frenchtown should be up for public review by the end of February.

However, the potential federal Superfund site cleanup might be stalled by some restrictive deed covenants recently placed by its reclusive owner. Both U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Missoula County officials were uncertain on Wednesday how owner M2Green’s prohibition of new wells or development on the old Smurfit-Stone Container property would affect the search for toxic waste there.

EPA project manager Sara Sparks told about 70 people at a Tuesday public meeting in Frenchtown that the draft work plans should be available by Monday, Feb. 26. A 28-day public comment period will follow, after which the EPA should issue its response to concerns raised. It could possibly issue final risk assessments later this year. That could eventually lead to a full-scale cleaning of hazardous chemicals left from a half-century of paper and liner-board production at the mill.

The deed restrictions filed in Missoula County on Feb. 7 prohibit any use of existing water wells beyond what was allowed in 2011, and “no installation of any new or additional water wells on the property for any purpose.” The restriction states that M2Green or subsequent owners can put in new groundwater monitoring wells if required by law.

The restrictions also block any residential, agricultural or recreational uses, including virtually any non-industrial development from sports fields to drive-in movie theaters or schools.

Missoula Valley Water Quality District Supervisor Peter Nielsen said it was unclear how the deed changes might affect cleanup work. But he added the move was something other owners of potential Superfund sites have made elsewhere in the country.

“It may be to protect the company from liability,” Nielsen said. “If they can limit the cleanup to industrial standards, it’s a lot less expensive for the company.”

Nielsen said Missoula County remains concerned about the status of berms separating the mill’s cooling ponds from the Clark Fork River.

“That’s the primary risk we’ve been talking about,” Nielsen said of the county’s requests to EPA. “What happens when we get the big flood, and it erodes those pathetic little gravel berms? There’s 160 acres of industrial dumps, containing everything from 1957 to 1993. I don’t know what’s in them. That has not been investigated. And that risk is not being evaluated now.”

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks fisheries manager Pat Saffel said his department wants EPA to add more testing of fish in the river to the EPA workload.

“There are preliminary findings of contamination of fish near the site,” Saffel said. “We think some more investigation is needed to see how that contamination relates, and what might be coming from the site.”

High levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have been found in two areas of the mill site, along with traces of other dangerous organic compounds and metals like manganese and arsenic.

Current owner M2Green Redevelopment is one of three potentially responsible parties in the Superfund cleanup. The others are West Rock CP, representing Smurfit-Stone, which shuttered the mill in 2010, and International Paper Co., an iteration of previous owner Champion International.

Waldorf Paper Products built the Frenchtown plant and began producing paper products on the banks of the Clark Fork River in the late 1950s. It became both a stabilizing economic influence and an ongoing environmental concern for Frenchtown and Missoula County in subsequent decades as Hoerner Waldorf, Champion International, Stone Container and, in 1985, Smurfit-Stone Container.

Missoula County also has tried to recover about $1.2 million in back taxes from the site’s owners. Last November, it reached a settlement with lending company Wakefield Kennedy for $967,632. Wakefield Kennedy owns the $29 million mortgage on the site.

"The good news is they identified some data gaps, and there will be more collection of data," Nielsen said. "The investigation is not over. It's moving forward."

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.