In early March, the Department of Environmental Quality wrote to the Smurfit-Stone Container company urging it to conduct an environmental assessment of its 3,200-acre Frenchtown property prior to any sale. The agency wrote again a week later making it clear that any demolition at the shuttered paperboard mill must follow the Montana Asbestos Control Act. It also warned of a potential Superfund designation.
That was when Smurfit-Stone was about to sell the site to MLR Investments, which planned to scrap the mill. Gov. Brian Schweitzer made no secret of the fact that he didn't want the deal to close, preferring a job generator at the site. The state sought to delay the transaction with environmental roadblocks.
There were no roadblocks to impede the Green Investment Group, which a couple of weeks ago announced that it had bought out MLR Investments' interest and purchased the mill for about $20 million. The Illinois-based outfit specializes in brownfield redevelopment. It now has seven former Smurfit-Stone mills in its portfolio. The Frenchtown site is the largest of them.
Green Investment Group is "more familiar with this kind of cleanup work," says DEQ Director Richard Opper. "So I think we're probably more comfortable with the ownership as it worked out, but the needs haven't changed, nor has the state's commitment to pursue this."
The DEQ has noted 11 petroleum spill sites on the property. The Missoula County Commissioners fear PCBs, carcinogenic PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), arsenic, metals, dioxins, and furans may also linger in the site's settling ponds, situated in the historic floodplain of the Clark Fork River. Opper says further investigations must be conducted to document the extent, location, and nature of any contamination, and the Environmental Protection Agency will likely lead those investigations.
"We work with the agencies on a regular basis," says Green Investment Group President Ray Stillwell. "If they want to come in and take a look at something, generally we find them to be helpful. We don't fight with them, we cooperate with them."
It appears the company's prepared to pay to clean up whatever the agencies find: "It's not unusual for it to go well into seven figures," Stillwell says of the company's other cleanups. Opper notes that Smurfit-Stone could still be on the hook for part of the tab, depending on the site's eventual Superfund status.