Slow progress on investigating and eventually remediating damages resulting from the former Smurfit Stone Container Corp. pulp and paper mill west of Missoula could get a shot in the arm if Missoula County is successful in securing a state grant.

Commissioners on Tuesday signed off on a letter in hopes of landing funding from the Montana Natural Resource Damage Program to perform a damage assessment of the former industrial site and surrounding area.

“I'm hopeful the Natural Resource Damage Program secures this grant so they can move forward with the work that's needed to determine the extend of natural damage at Smurfit,” said Elena Evans, a hydro-geologist at the Missoula Valley Water Quality District.

“It's something they put forward for the primarily responsible parties to fund, but they (M2Green) declined to fund it, so this is an opportunity to gain funding to see what's going on in the Clark Fork River as a result of Smurfit Stone.”

County officials fear that without a proper damage assessment of the natural environment outside the Smurfit property, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may select a “waste-in-place” remedy that would “hinder further conservation” of the river.

A proper damage assessment could still sway the cleanup, the county contends.

“As to the impacts of the fishery and impacts further outside the site, this might make that connection better,” said Evans. “Without fully exploring the river, the fisheries and osprey, things like that, it's harder to include those pieces into the part of remediation that falls under EPA jurisdiction.”

The National Resource Damage Program has been involved at other locations throughout the Clark Fork River Basin, primarily upstream of Missoula. The work has resulted in settlements for restoration and conservation. 

At the Smurfit site, M2Green has been named as a potentially responsible party for cleanup costs, though the county said the company has turned its back on its cleanup responsibility. That has left the county to seek funding for the studies needed to determine the level cleanup that will be needed to remediate the site.

“It's always disappointing when the potentially responsible party fails to take responsibility, but hopefully this takes care of it,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier.

A deputy Missoula County attorney said M2Green failed to respond to a lawsuit served by the county. No contact has been achieved since then.