Smurfit site

Since the plant closed in 2010, the cooling ponds next to the former Smurfit-Stone Container pulp mill have mostly dried up. For much of its operating time in the previous decades, air pollution from the paper-making process motivated Missoula's early environmental movement. Its consumption of wood pulp from area sawmills was also crucial to the economic web supporting Montana's timber industry.

Missoula County reached a settlement Thursday over the former Smurfit-Stone Container mill site, which owed more than $1.2 million in taxes to the county.

The Board of County Commissioners approved an agreement at its Thursday meeting giving the county $967,632.51, to be paid by Wakefield Kennedy, the lending company handling the property.

“We don’t get to make everybody happy very often,” Commissioner Cola Rowley said. “Maybe Wakefield Kennedy isn’t very happy, but they’re willingly entering into this.”

This summer, the county sued M2Green, an Illinois-based company that specializes in redeveloping brownfield sites, and owns the site, although it has a $29 million mortgage from Wakefield Kennedy.

Since M2Green bought the site in 2011, there has been no cleanup or redevelopment. 

Frenchtown Superintendent of Schools Randy Cline said his town has had only a negative experience with M2Green, full of broken promises and unanswered questions.

“Every time we thought we saw a light at the end of the tunnel with M2Green, we actually saw an oncoming train,” Cline said. “This is way more than we expected.”

According to County Deputy Civil Attorney Anna Conley, Wakefield Kennedy contacted the county in recent months to work on a settlement, to protect its assets.

Per the settlement agreement, Wakefield Kennedy will cover owed taxes on eight of the nine parcels it owns west of Frenchtown, paying 89 percent of the outstanding balance, including penalties and interest.

The county may pursue payment of a little over $222,000 on the ninth parcel — with the catchy name of Lot 865200 — which Wakefield Kennedy made clear wasn’t negotiable.

“My sense is they conceived some level of contamination in that parcel,” Conley said.

The 3,200-acre Smurfit site was a paper pulp mill from 1957 until 2010 when all the workers were laid off and the plant was shut down. Tons of hazardous chemicals harmful to humans and wildlife were used or produced there, and more than 900 acres consist of unlined ponds used to store treated and untreated wastewater and sludge from the mill.

A few gravel berms are all that separate the Clark Fork River from polluted areas. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is investigating the property to determine whether to declare it a Superfund site. 

This summer, the county held around $500,000 earned from an auction at the former mill, which will be put toward Wakefield Kenney’s payment.

The rest will come in two checks — one in the coming days, with the other due on or before March 1, 2018. 

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City, County Government Reporter

Government Reporter for The Missoulian.