Missoula County is suing the out-of-state corporation that owns the former Smurfit-Stone mill in Frenchtown for more than $1.2 million in delinquent taxes.
The county alleges that the company, M2GREEN Redevelopment, is maintaining community decay, a public nuisance and health code violations by accumulating demolition waste and garbage.
The Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. ran a paper mill on the bank of the Clark Fork River for more than 50 years, using a variety of hazardous chemicals left in unlined ponds. The mill permanently closed in 2010, and the 3,200-acre industrial site has sat vacant ever since.
M2GREEN, an Illinois-based company, purchased the property in 2011 with the intent of demolishing it and selling the steel for scrap. However, steel prices then fell dramatically, and M2GREEN stopped all demolition work. The site is in the review and testing process for being named a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency, but no cleanup efforts have begun.
In the meantime, the Frenchtown School District and the Frenchtown Fire Department haven’t seen a dime in property taxes from M2GREEN from two of the site's 15 parcels for the past three years. The total amount the county seeks is $1,203,339.01.
On Wednesday, the Missoula County Attorney’s Office filed a civil complaint in Missoula County District Court on behalf of the county that seeks a judgment in that amount.
That is made possible by House Bill 516, sponsored by state Rep. Kim Dudik (D-Missoula). It's a law that enables a taxing jurisdiction to sue to collect delinquent property taxes once the bill surpasses $250,000 or more.
The county is also asking the court to pay the county all proceeds from an auction of equipment on the mill site scheduled for Aug. 10. In addition, the county filed a motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to prevent transfers of real property or other assets by M2GREEN pending the litigation.
Also on Wednesday, the Missoula City-County Health Department filed a civil complaint asserting that M2GREEN has violated health code regulations regarding solid waste and community decay by leaving industrial debris and garbage in big piles on the site for years.
"While any concrete asset recovery from these actions is an uphill battle, these actions are part of an attempt by Missoula County commissioners to use all tools available to address M2GREEN’s long-standing tax delinquencies and the damage done to Missoula County and the Frenchtown community,” said Missoula County communications coordinator Katie Klietz.
According to Anna Conley, the county’s senior civil deputy county attorney, the reason that special legislation was required to allow the county to sue M2GREEN is because of the polluted nature of the site. Essentially, the county didn’t want to assume a tax lien on the property because it would then be responsible for cleanup of the site. This way, the company that owns the site is ostensibly still responsible for cleanup.
“There was no way, under the previous law, to collect these delinquent taxes,” Conley explained. “It’s a huge detriment to the fire department and the school district. It’s significant tax revenue. What HB516 did was allow counties to attempt to obtain a civil judgment using other assets for tax delinquencies.”
It’s not clear whether M2GREEN thought it could recoup its cleanup costs before scrap steel prices dropped. The company, which now calls itself Green Investment Group on its website, still lists the Smurfit site as a “unique opportunity for industrial manufacturers” on its website. President Ray Stillwell did not return an email seeking comment.
The fate of the Smurfit-Stone site, owned by an out-of-state corporation, stands in stark contrast to the former Stimson lumber mill in Bonner, which closed in 2008. That site was purchased by local owners Mike Boehme and Steve Nelson, who have helped transform the site into a beehive of economic activity including a new brewery, manufacturing businesses and a new music amphitheater. Both sites are located next to a river near Missoula, but the business development couldn’t be more different.
Missoula County will also be applying for funding from the State of Montana under the Natural Resource Damage Program to support restoration work at the Smurfit site, Klietz said. All three of Missoula’s County Commissioners, Jean Curtiss, Nicole Rowley and Dave Strohmaier, signed a letter to Gov. Steve Bullock asking for the money.
“Restoring this site is a vital community need that will require additional funding sources than what Missoula County can currently contribute,” they said in the letter.