Missoula County and the Schweitzer administration agree that the 3,200-acre Frenchtown mill site northwest of Missoula, which holds a soup of contaminants left behind by a half-century of papermaking, should be added to the Superfund National Priorities List, and it's expected to happen soon.
In a Nov. 29 letter (PDF) from the Missoula Board of County Commissioners to Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Department of Environmental Quality Director Richard Opper, the commissioners said that after reviewing the results of the Environmental Protection Agency's recent site investigation, "We believe that this is the next logical step to ensure that the parties responsible for the site contamination are required to complete necessary remedial investigation and cleanup."
Proposed NPL listing of portions of the site would also provide the property owners and other responsible parties an opportunity to negotiate an agreement for investigation and cleanup. Superfund listing would provide necessary oversight, ensure public involvement, remove uncertainties regarding environmental liability and allow redevelopment of the property, while alleviating the need to spend taxpayer dollars on future cleanup.
The letter came two days after the EPA wrote to Gov. Schweitzer (PDF) requesting consent for a Superfund listing, which Schweitzer's expected to grant.
"The data is clearly there to justify the listing and the community supports it, so I don't see any obstacles to the state giving its consent," says DEQ Director Richard Opper.
The commissioners' letter says they're especially concerned about the site's 138 acres of sludge ponds and landfills—contaminated with toxins such as dioxins, furans, arsenic, chromium, lead and methylphenol—located within the Clark Fork River's floodplain. "These areas are at risk of a catastrophic release by a large flood," wrote the commissioners. "Contamination at the site needs to be managed before a large flood creates a more wide-spread problem."
The three commissioners—Bill Carey, Michele Landquist and Jean Curtiss—also noted the "critical importance" of the EPA and DEQ working closely with the property's new owners in order to identify portions of the site that are not contaminated and facilitate redevelopment. In mid 2011, M2 Green Redevelopment, LLC, a subsidiary of the Illinois-based Green Investment Group, Inc., acquired the mill from Smurfit-Stone for about $19 million. The company owns seven former Smurfit-Stone properties in the U.S. and Canada, sites that it's working to clean up and redevelop, with mixed results.
Peter Nielsen, of the Missoula City-County Health Department, says the county wants "nothing more than for [the Green Investment Group] to be successful in redeveloping that site and bringing some jobs back to the industrial portion of it. At the same time, we have priorities with regard to protecting public safety and health and restoring the river, and we're going to stick to those, too."
Attached to Thursday's letter was a map, below, outlining "areas of significant concern as well as areas that could be fast-tracked for initial assessment and potentially excluded from detailed evaluation."
While the commissioners' letter notes that a Superfund listing would help the responsible parties broker a cleanup agreement, doing so will surely be complicated. The Green Investment Group absolved bankrupt Smurfit-Stone (now owned by the paper manufacturer RockTenn) of all environmental liability. In its contract with Smurfit-Stone, the Green Investment Group agreed to "assume and perform, satisfy, pay and discharge all debts, actions, causes of actions, lawsuits, claims, demands and other liabilities and obligations of every kind and nature, whether past, present or future, known or unknown, fixed or contingent, arising from or relating to the property or the environmental conditions in, on, under or surrounding the property or any of the improvements thereon."
Under federal Superfund law, the government can sue all prior landowners to pay for the cleanup. One of those landowners would be RockTenn, which besides acquiring Smurfit-Stone previously bought a company known as Hoerner-Waldorf, which operated the Frenchtown mill for many years until the mid-1970s, when the mill was purchased by Champion International. Champion has since been acquired by International Paper, so International Paper could be on the hook, too.
Superfund law says liability can't be avoided through contract clauses. But because of the terms of the Green Investment Group's contract, RockTenn could sue the Green Investment Group and seek to transfer RockTenn's obligation.
The Green Investment Group has yet to respond to a request for comment.