Missoula County objects to change in Smurfit water right, wants taxes paid
(Missoula Current) The cleanup of contamination at the Smurfit Stone mill site is still years away, but Missoula County wants to be sure that the water situation on the site doesn’t change before it happens.
During the March meeting of the Frenchtown Smurfit Stone Community Advisory Group, Elena Evans, Missoula City-County Environmental Health manager, said the county was objecting to a change in some water rights requested by the owners of the Smurfit Stone mill site.
“Missoula County isn’t trying to stand in the way of beneficial use of that water. We just think it’s premature,” Evans said.
In 2020, the owners of the property, MLH Montana, submitted an application for a water right change to the Montana Department of Natural Resources Conservation. Before 2010, when the mill was still cranking out cardboard, it had water rights to pull groundwater out of the nearby Fairbanks and Mill well fields and put it to industrial use processing pulp and generating power. Once the water was treated in a series of ponds, it was released into the Clark Fork River.
Now that the mill is no longer operational, the site owners wanted to change the water rights from an industrial use to “marketing for mitigation.” If the wells are shut down, the groundwater that used to be siphoned out can accumulate and recharge the river.
So, some of the well water would be credited to the river to be available for people to buy for another water right downstream.
In February, Jim Nave, DNRC Water Rights Regional Manager, told the advisory group he’d calculated the amount of water Smurfit Stone had used. The operation diverted slightly less than 16,000 gallons a year or 20,305 acre-feet from the wells.
But because much of that was later dumped in the river, only about a quarter, or 4,600 acre-feet, was considered “consumed” from the system due to evaporation or other loss. So that would be the amount of river water that could be offered for sale if the water rights change was approved.
Nave said the DNRC had put the application out for public comment, and if there were no objections, he’d approve the change.
Sounds like a good deal, except for one problem: the mill site has yet to be cleaned up, a lot of that groundwater is contaminated, and it may still be needed where it is, Evans said. So the county objected.
Because the application involves such a large change in water quantity, it has to provide “clear and convincing evidence” that water quality won’t be affected. The application said the quality of the Missoula aquifer reflects that of the river so water quality wouldn’t be affected by closing the wells.
Evans said that wasn’t true for the area around Smurfit Stone where groundwater samples show that mean arsenic concentrations are seven times greater than the rest of the Missoula aquifer and mean manganese levels are 17 times greater. She didn’t think people downstream would be interested in using water polluted with dioxins, furans or other toxins.
"We contend that the groundwater at Smurfit Stone is still doing industrial work - it is still fluxing water from the site to the Clark Fork River,” Evans said. “Basically, the statement included in the water rights applications isn’t true.”
The Environmental Protection Agency retains “institutional control” of all Superfund areas until they’re cleaned up, and in this case, that would include the groundwater area. Also since no work has begun at the mill site, Evans said the water might still be necessary for use in the cleanup.
Evans said she hasn’t heard from the DNRC about the county’s objection. Water districts and the Department of Environmental Quality can also object, but they usually don’t, Evans said. The county should know the outcome by May 18 at the latest, which is the DNRC deadline for scheduling a hearing.
Former environmental health supervisor Peter Nielsen asked about the property tax owed on the mill property. Evans said the various owners, including MLH Montana, WestRock, International Paper Company and M2Green Redevelopment, owe a total of about $750,000 in back taxes. MLH is a year behind, but M2Green hasn’t paid since 2011, the year it bought the property.
“As a Missoula County taxpayer, I find this offensive. Knowing the history of WestRock or RockTenn, they closed this place, a perfectly operating permitted pulp mill, so they could make more money running their mills in other parts of the country. And now they set up a sham front-group that has no resources. It’s a disgrace what’s happened here,” Nielsen said. “I think these companies could damn well afford to pay the taxes and for the cleanup, given the handsome profits they’ve made by closing this down and consolidating their operations in other parts of the country.”
While going through bankruptcy, Smurfit-Stone closed the Frenchtown mill in December 2009, the same time it closed another mill in Michigan.
RockTenn, now called WestRock, bought Smurfit-Stone Container for $3.5 billion in January 2011, according to BusinessWire, and took on Smurfit’s debt of $700 million and pension liabilities of $1.1 billion. Smurfit-Stone had just come out of bankruptcy in 2010.
M2Green, an affiliate of the Illinois-based Green Investment Group, bought the property in May 2011.
According to a Nov. 8, 2012, Green Investment Group release, company owner Ray Stillwell said during a Missoula public meeting, “As with any industrial site we acquire, we fully expect that the EPA will find some level of contamination. We’ve already begun discussions with the EPA and will work in cooperation with them and the State of Montana to remediate the designated area.”
M2Green all but abandoned the site after steel prices fell around that time. Green Investment Group stopped updating its website in 2016. M2Green has since sold several parcels, prompting Missoula County to sue for back taxes in 2017 and put a lien on the remaining parcels.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.