Court voids wastewater discharge permit issued by DEQ to owners of Frenchtown mill

A District Court judge on Tuesday settled a three-year-old lawsuit filed by a coalition of Missoula partners against the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, saying a discharge permit issued by the agency violated the intent of the state’s Water Quality Act.

The ruling, issued by Helena District Judge James Reynolds, found that DEQ erred in transferring an old discharge permit granted to Smurfit-Stone Container Corp.’s pulp and paper mill in Frenchtown to the property’s new owners, M2Green.

Reynolds effectively voided the permit with Tuesday’s decision.

“(DEQ’s) decision was not based on a consideration of the relevant factors and there has been a clear error of judgment,” Reynolds wrote. “The court is not satisfied that DEQ has made a reasoned decision. The transfer of the Smurfit-Stone permit to M2Green and renewal of that permit is not valid and is void.”

The Missoula City-County Health Board joined the Clark Fork Coalition and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in challenging the permit transferred to M2Green in October 2014.

At the time, the coalition argued that the permit no longer applied to the property since it was under new ownership. M2Green, which purchased the site in 2011, had already dismantled the former mill and stated their intent to use the site for a different use, primarily the manufacturing of wind turbines.

In their suit, the partners argued that the site’s industrial days were in the past and asked the judge to void the Montana Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit, which allowed M2Green to dump high levels of pollution into the Clark Fork River.

“This decision confirms our interpretation of the regulations governing DEQ in issuing discharge permits, and represents a big win for clean water,” said Peter Nielsen, supervisor of the Missoula Valley Water Quality District.

“We believe it is also a call for action going forward – namely, removing the aging industrial infrastructure associated with wastewater discharge from the state-owned bed and banks of the river, and cleaning up the more than 102 acres of sludge and ash dumps that are no longer needed to process wastewater from the mill.”

In his ruling, Reynolds found that DEQ erred by transferring and renewing the dated permit to M2Green because it based the permit on pollution activities of a facility that no longer exists and granted it to a facility that also does not exist.

M2Green has done little with the property since purchasing it, other than scrapping valuable steel and recyclables. Initially, the company had pledged to build a wind-turbine manufacturing site but has not done so.

“This status means that DEQ could not and did not issue a permit for cause as required (by state law),” Reynolds found. “DEQ simply lacked the information necessary to issue any permit.”