Subscribe for 17¢ / day
Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. mill site

A loader fills a dump truck with scrap metal being pulled down and sheared at the former Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. mill site near Frenchtown in October.

MISSOULA — The owners of Frenchtown’s former pulp mill site say a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund designation there would hurt chances of bringing jobs back to the site.

“If you look at any Superfund site, the bureaucracy imposed is going to delay any job creation or economic activity there,” said Ray Stillwell, manager for M2Green Redevelopment LLC, which owns the former Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. property. “It’s not because they’re not good people, but they have a system that takes months and years, compared to equally professional and qualified people at the state level.”

On Tuesday, EPA officials announced plans to place the Frenchtown site on the National Priorities List, a preliminary step to a full Superfund cleanup. That announcement should be published in the Federal Register on Friday, beginning a 60-day public-comment period.

Stillwell said he preferred to handle the site cleanup issues in-house with state supervision rather than let the project become a federal matter.

“The focus for us is to do investigation and remediation to standards, in a way that allows us to avoid the delays and stigma that inherently comes with Superfund designation,” he said Thursday. “We have opportunities that are now not moving forward because of the uncertainty.”

Missoula County Environmental Health Supervisor Peter Nielsen said the local government supported the federal move as the best way to ensure the site got proper attention.

“The issue isn’t what label you put on it, the issue is contamination in the ground,” Nielsen said. “Bankers know that, and they won’t lend money unless you’re dealing with it. It was a pulp mill that operated for 57 years and there’s contamination there. Everybody knows that.”

Stillwell and Nielsen also disputed the scope of the EPA’s plan. Stillwell said he was upset the federal draft plan covered the entire 3,200 acres of the Smurfit-Stone Container property, including areas he argued were clean.

“The areas known to have contamination issues are very limited areas,” Stillwell said. “Even (Missoula) County says about 165 acres are affected. To impact the entire site, through an NPL listing, is shutting down development of lands really ready to go. Many parcels never saw any industrial activity at all.”

Nielsen pointed out the draft designation doesn’t actually define geographical boundaries of the site, because the testing remains to be completed. While some areas have definitely reached and exceeded EPA ranking thresholds for contamination, it’s possible that toxic chemicals could seep beyond their dumping sites to less obvious areas.

“We said there should be an expedited process to look at portions that may not be contaminated, and exclude them from further work,” Nielsen said. “But that doesn’t mean you exclude places where sampling hasn’t been done. You can’t say things are clearly clean. There has to be some investigation to get to that point.”

Stillwell said about 90 percent of the demolition work on the old paper mill is completed. The site has 1 million square feet of office space for lease or sale, in addition to potential gravel mines, agricultural land and other industrial potential.