Missoula County sues owner of Smurfit site for $1.2M in back taxes

Missoula County on Wednesday filed three civil complaints against the owner of a former industrial site in Frenchtown in an effort to collect delinquent taxes and block the company from profiting off the sale or transfer of additional property.

In papers filed in Missoula District Court, the county argues that M2Green, the owner of the former Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. pulp and paper mill in Frenchtown, has accrued more than $1.2 million in back taxes on several parcels, even as it profits off the sale of “valuable real and personal property.”

The county also looks to intercept any proceeds M2Green may recover from an auction it has scheduled this August on equipment and other fixtures related to the shuttered mill.

The company has 21 days to respond to lawsuit.

“What we really hope is to gain some ground against those tax obligations,” Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss said Wednesday. “We want to make sure they’re on notice that they can’t transfer those parcels to someone else.”

M2Green, which purchased the property in 2011 roughly one year after Smurfit-Stone ended operations, owns roughly 15 parcels of real estate at the shuttered industrial site, along with equipment stemming from the old mill.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently reviewing the property for listing as a Superfund site and M2Green is listed as a potentially responsible party.

According to the suit, M2Green has already sold several parcels, leading the county to believe it may attempt to sell other associated lots. It may also attempt to market its water rights and subdivide the property for greater profit, the suit contends.

“Based on its past sales, it is possible that M2Green will attempt to sell (three) parcels during the pendency of this litigation, leaving Missoula County with even fewer options to collect a judgment,” the suit contents.

Curtiss said the delinquent taxes are especially hard on the Frenchtown School District and the Frenchtown Fire Department.

The parent company of M2Green, known as Green Investment Group based in Illinois, purchased abandoned paper mills in New Richmond, Quebec, and Bathurst, New Brunswick in 2010, just before it purchased the Frenchtown site.

The company purchased the mills with the promise of attracting hundreds of green-based jobs. It made the same promise in Frenchtown in May 2011, though Curtiss said that promise has long since faded.

“They sold us all a bill of goods, and they’ve done that in other communities across the U.S. and Canada,” Curtiss said. “I remember standing out there with Gov. (Brian) Schweitzer, and we were all hopeful they would do something good. Markets change and all kinds of plans change, but they do have an obligation to pay their share.”

A separate suit filed Wednesday by the Missoula County Health Department also contends that M2Green all but abandoned the site after steel prices fell and has done little over the past six years to mitigate the debris it left behind.

The resulting “debris, junk, refuse and scattered lumber” left upon the property, including pipes, concrete, tin sheds and air ducting, stand in violation of the county’s regulations regarding solid waste and community decay.

At least four community complaints have been filed against the property, according to county documents.

“The former mill site is littered with industrial garbage,” one complaint suggests. “The buildings are deteriorating and becoming more derelict in their appearance. The site appears blighted and abandoned.”

Should the company be unwilling to remove or abate the material, the county looks to confiscate all equipment and fixtures associated with the site. It’s also asking the court to order M2Green to cover the cost of mitigation, which could include a lien on the property.

The EPA also has placed a lien on the property.