The Illinois company that owns the former Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. mill site at Frenchtown is reportedly under investigation in Quebec for failing to clean up an industrial site in Canada.
CBC News of Canada reported late last month that Green Investment Group Inc. also owes nearly a million dollars in taxes in New Brunswick and has been slow to redevelop its three Smurfit sites in Canada after scrapping them.
Similar concerns have been raised in Montana since GIGI, known here as M2 Green, purchased the Frenchtown mill 3 1/2 years ago.
“It’s interesting to see that people are finding out some of their problems are existing in more than one place, and that they’re investigating some of the same issues that we’re having here,” said Peter Nielsen, Missoula County’s environmental health supervisor and a leading skeptic of M2 Green’s cleanup intentions.
But Ray Stillwell, president of GIGI, said much of the Nov. 27 Canadian news story was off the mark.
He told CBC News in November and the Missoulian last week that he had no knowledge of an investigation into the cleanup at Portage-du-Fort, a probe that Quebec’s Department of Environment said is “aimed at penal action.”
“I don’t really believe it’s true,” Stillwell told the Missoulian. “I know the conditions of things there, and the only issue I’m aware of on one of the Quebec sites is that related to a tenant. That doesn’t have anything to do with us, other than the fact that it is our tenant. But it’s not our responsibility.”
Stillwell added his company now has a vice president in Canada headquartered “right across the river from Ottawa” who knows nothing about an environmental investigation either. Email and phone queries to Quebec’s Department of Environment did not net an explanation of the discrepancy Tuesday.
In 2010 Green Investment Group, headed by Stillwell and Mark Spizzo, purchased abandoned paper mills in New Richmond, Quebec, and Bathurst, New Brunswick – both on the Gulf of St. Lawrence – as well as Portage-du-Fort in the interior of Quebec.
The CBC News report noted that GIGI bought the three mills with the promise of attracting hundreds of jobs to green-based industries, much as the company did in Frenchtown in May 2011.
“It seems to me that the intention is to simply cannibalize the sites rather than to turn them into attractive businesses,” environmental law attorney Michael Hebert of Ottawa told CBC News.
GIGI has signed up just four of the promised 11 companies to Portage-du-Fort, said CBC News, with 48 jobs at peak times, not the 500 the company assured at purchase.
New Richmond was more successful, attracting companies that brought nearly 200 jobs before it was sold. The Canadian report said there are still numerous environmental infractions for which GIGI is being held partially responsible.
Bathurst is on the verge of being sold to what Stillwell called a “very politically connected” local developer who plans to offer residential and industrial opportunities on the property. The site never attracted investors interested in GIGI’s vision, shuttered as it was in a company town that grew up around it starting in the 1880s.
“We tried diligently to find a business that would want to come into the middle of town and locate there,” Stillwell told the Missoulian. “All of them said, ‘Uh-uh, we’re not going to run the risk of the scrutiny we’re going to have to go under with the industrial process and the logistics and the trucks of locating in the middle of town when there’s plenty of good options elsewhere.' ”
At Frenchtown, M2Green has dismantled and scrapped the once-booming mill’s papermaking capacity. Potential investors and tenants have shown interest, but the mill site sits quiet and devoid of production for the fourth winter.
“We have been disappointed that M2 Green hasn’t seemed to want to work with businesses that are interested in going out there,” said Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss.
Curtiss, who sits on the board of the Missoula Economic Partnership, said MEP has referred “more than one” business to Stillwell’s company.
“They just haven’t seemed to work together,” she said.
Stillwell told CBC News he and his company are working "diligently" to attract businesses to the Canadian sites and said the key is “usually raising capital for projects that are relatively new technologies.”
One such technology, he told the Missoulian, is a second-generation alternative fuel using wood to create diesel.
“It seems to me that Missoula might be a really nice place for a project like that,” said Stillwell. He has personally taken on the project, pursuing the capital and already completing written proposals for construction at Frenchtown, Portage-du-Fort and a third old mill site in his hometown of Alton, Illinois.
Stillwell figures the project could proceed despite the pending Superfund National Priorities Listing from the Environmental Protection Agency. In November, M2 Green and other potential responsible parties were granted an extension by the EPA until Dec. 19 to submit a good-faith offer to carry out the investigation and cleanup themselves under an administrative order of consent.
“I’m hoping that if my project moves forward it can at least get started in 2015,” Stillwell said. “Other activities are going to be delayed as long as the uncertainty regarding the National Priorities List continues. We’re working very diligently to show that the site, at least that most of the site, if any, should not be on the NPL.”
Nielsen said he’s received strong indications that the EPA, which typically makes Superfund priority list designations in the spring and fall, will finally list the mill site next spring.
“Our hope is in a couple of weeks we hear from these parties something substantive and that there really is some substance to their response, because up until this point there has not been,” he said.
According to CBC News, Green Investment Group is almost $1 million behind in its taxes in Bathurst and is delinquent at other sites as well.
Stillwell said he’s in a business in which "you make money in chunks and you don’t get it every month, so when you have the money you pay the bills.”
M2 Green hasn’t made a tax payment to Missoula County since 2011. The bill is accruing daily and has now topped $632,000, according to Andrew Czorny, the county’s chief financial officer.
Nearly half of that is due to the Frenchtown School District.
“We’re really working on it,” Stillwell said. “We’re going to get it taken care of. We want the school system to get that money, too.”
"Our position at the county hasn't changed," said Nielsen. "We want to see it cleaned up out there and we want them to get going on it without delay.
"The longer it sits there the longer it's not a productive asset for our community, and the longer it sits there the longer the threat exists of environmental damage. In particular we'd be concerned about a big flood occurring and taking out the area of landfill that's located in and near the flood plain."