The state of Montana is making it very clear that it doesn’t want Smurfit-Stone to sell its Frenchtown mill to MLR Investments, LLC, which reportedly plans to scrap it.
Today Gov. Brian Schweitzer came to Missoula to say that if Smurfit-Stone or MLR Investments demolishes the shuttered paperboard mill, it must follow the Montana Asbestos Control Act, which states that the demolition of buildings must be conducted in accordance with the law and Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) rules. Schweitzer’s press conference, which also featured Mayor John Engen and county commissioners, came a day after DEQ Director Richard Opper sent a rather terse letter (PDF) to Smurfit-Stone and MLR Investments demanding, by the middle of next week, records relating to plans for demolition, the presence of asbestos and the purchase itself.
The request marks the second roadblock the state has put up to, ostensibly, block, or at least delay, the transaction. Last week, the DEQ sent a letter (PDF) to Smurfit-Stone strongly urging it to conduct an environmental assessment of its wastewater ponds—where petroleum and perhaps other toxins like PCBs, arsenic and dioxin linger—before the company sells the property. The agency warned that it has the authority to designate the property adjacent to the Clark Fork River a state Superfund site, or request that the Environmental Protection Agency inspect the site to determine whether it would fall under federal Superfund authority.
The Indy caught up with Schweitzer as he headed out of town. He stressed that his preference is for the mill site to be used for industrial purposes.
“Ultimately, we don’t believe this facility ought to be scrapped,” he said. “This is still a very good industrial facility. It’s got a lot of attributes, whether it’s used in the future as some kind of an energy production facility or continues in the paper business…We have about 500 people who are world-class is terms of being trained to run this facility.”
When asked if the state would put up environmental roadblocks if the buyer were planning to continue industrial activity, Schweitzer declined to answer.
“I’m not going to get into any of that,” he said. “I’m just going to say that we have now sent a letter to Smurfit and a copy to the scrapper, John Ralston and his company, and explained to them how they will conduct themselves if they’re going to do business in Montana.”
Ralston, of Portland, Ore., has so far declined to speak with media about the deal.
Schweitzer justified the requests the state has made of MLR Investments by saying he wants to make sure that the mill site doesn’t become the “next Bonner of Berkeley Pit” with a "legacy of pollution." At the same time, he said his first choice would be for the site to reopen as a paper mill.
Should the pending deal fall through—and the state obviously hopes it will—Schweitzer says other buyers are waiting in the wings.
“We know of backup buyers that have expressed a keen interest,” he said. “And not only backup buyers, but backup buyers with the resources to make this deal go.”