A future owner can’t have the same water pollution discharge permit once used by Smurfit-Stone Container’s pulp mill near Frenchtown, according to a court ruling on Tuesday.
“This is a big win for clean water,” said Peter Nielsen, Missoula County's environmental health supervisor. “That permit had extremely generous discharge limits for phosphorus and nitrogen — way more than the city of Missoula has. It had a 3,000-acre mixing zone and four outfalls into the river. That will no longer be the case.”
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality had allowed M2Green Redevelopment LLC to take over the industrial discharge permit from the former paper factory when it purchased the 3,200-acre property in 2011. The Missoula County Water Quality District, Clark Fork Coalition and Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes objected, arguing it was improper to transfer the right to dump pollutants in the river without first knowing which company might be using that right.
“The flaw throughout DEQ’s transfer and renewal of (the permit) is that it is based on polluting activities from a facility that no longer existed — the Smurfit-Stone paper and pulp mill — in favor of a new facility that also does not exist — the undefined use of this site by M2Green,” District Judge James Reynolds wrote. “DEQ simply lacked the information necessary to issue any permit.”
Reynolds also ruled the state agency failed to notify officials on the Flathead Indian Reservation, where CSKT has treaty rights regarding water quality.
The mill site has undergone slow but steady deconstruction since Smurfit-Stone abruptly closed it seven years ago. State and local officials have since asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to investigate 160 acres of potential toxic waste dumps on the property — a space larger than the University of Montana campus. That process remains in the investigatory stage.
Clark Fork Coalition Executive Director Karen Knudsen noted the decision might spur remediation of that reach of riverbank.
“Now that the permit is void, that means the need for wastewater infrastructure goes away,” Knudsen said. “And there’s a lot in there. There’s all manner of pipe strewn along 4 miles of river corridor. And there’s a trespass issue. That stuff is all below the high water mark in ground owned by the public.”
That could bring in the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, which oversees the beds and banks of rivers. After several private sales, the mill site still has about 1,100 acres of recoverable floodplain — three times the size of the Milltown dam recovery east of Missoula.
M2Green also owes Missoula County more than $1.2 million in unpaid property taxes. The county won the right to auction materials from the site in the 2017 Legislature. A public viewing of auction items takes place at the mill site on Wednesday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., with the auction set for 10 a.m. Thursday at the millsite. Items include locomotives, trucks, and industrial equipment.