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.

The 3,200-acre site of the former Smurfit-Stone mill in Frenchtown has massive potential. Its size, its picturesque location along the Clark Fork River and its proximity to the steadily growing communities of Frenchtown and Missoula are just a few of its unique assets.

So it is beyond frustrating for Missoula County residents to watch the property sit empty year after year, its possibilities unrealized. It is maddening to know that in the meantime, the property’s owners are racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes, leaving the Frenchtown school and fire districts struggling to fill the gaps in their budgets. And it is sickening to realize that the settling ponds, a serious contamination hazard in their own right, pose a major environmental threat to the river and everyone who lives downstream.

Missoula County is, of course, no stranger to any of these concerns, having learned a thing or two about encouraging the redevelopment of old mill sites from the former Stimson Lumber Co. site in Bonner, and about the lengthy, expensive Superfund cleanup process from the former Milltown Dam. It took many years of concerted effort, but today we can claim both of those as solid victories.

And we can apply the lessons learned from them to our current challenges with the old Smurfit property. County leaders have tried working with the Smurfit property owners, and a number of stakeholder agencies and organizations continue to try to work with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to turn this site into a success story as well.

Last week, they cranked up the heat on the EPA and on M2GREEN Redevelopment, the company that owns the former Smurfit mill property but which refuses to pay its full share of property taxes. All of Missoula County should pay close attention to these new developments – and back our public employees in their efforts.

The EPA holds quarterly teleconference meetings to provide updates on the proposed Superfund site, which operated as a pulp and paper mill for decades until it was shuttered in 2010. Various chemicals produced by the mill are held in unlined settling ponds that are slowly seeping contaminants into the river, prompting health officials to warn anglers against eating any fish caught along a 105-mile section of the Clark Fork.

Furthermore, a big flood event could breach some of the ponds, spilling their contents into the river.

It’s that possibility that has county residents urging the EPA to expedite the cleanup process. But “expedited” is not the same as “slapdash,” and those at the federal agency overseeing this process would do well to remember that.

They got a reminder during the third quarterly teleconference last Tuesday, when representatives from the state Natural Resource Damage Program, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and others chimed in one after another to note that two weeks is not enough time to provide meaningful input on the pile of documents just released by the EPA.

The EPA was given the go-ahead by past and current property owners to study the site contamination in November 2015. That’s approaching two years. And the most recent study drafts have not even been released yet.

While Missoulians do not want the EPA to drag its feet any longer, taking years to investigate and compile data, neither do we want to see the public review and comment period rushed through at the conclusion. That is, after all, our opportunity to ensure the cleanup process is progressing in a way that actually answers our concerns.

As Peter Nielsen, the director of the Water Quality District with the Missoula City-County Health Department, pointed out during the teleconference, Missoulians have previously seen the EPA begin testing before bothering to collect public comment. And the CSKT technical assistance group has not even been granted a visit to the mill site yet.

The EPA can and should move forward with the cleanup process as quickly as possible – but that doesn’t mean cutting corners by shutting out the public.

Meanwhile, Missoula County alleges M2GREEN now owes more than $1.2 million in unpaid taxes. Last week, it sued the company to collect those taxes – a suit that was only made possible through the legislative efforts of Missoula Rep. Kim Dudik, who sponsored the bill to allow taxing jurisdictions to go to court to collect on tax bills of $250,000 or more.

With the new law now in place, Missoula County wasted no time putting it to good use. In addition to the unpaid taxes, M2Green, based in Illinois, is accused of “maintaining community decay, a public nuisance and health code violations by accumulating demolition waste and garbage.”

For tax purposes, the company is responsible for 15 individual parcels; however, it has not paid any taxes on two of those parcels for the past three years.

The county is suing to collect that money, as well as proceeds from an upcoming auction of mill equipment, and an injunction to prevent the company from transferring property or other assets.

The same day, the Missoula City-County Health Department filed a civil complaint regarding the company’s alleged health code violations. Apparently, solid waste, debris and piles of garbage have been left sitting on the site for several years.

There’s no good excuse for treating this property like a landfill. Missoula County is determined to see that it receives the restoration it has long deserved, and last week commissioners sent a letter of intent to Gov. Steve Bullock formally requesting funds from the Natural Resource Damage Program.

These are all last-resort measures that the county has undertaken only after exhausting all other reasonable efforts to work with the property owner. Missoula County’s public officials should be applauded for taking the next necessary steps to make sure this property gets cleaned up, and that county taxpayers aren’t left holding the bill.

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