These long-time adversaries are looking for new strategies for dealing with each other-and for solving the one question they agree needs to be answered: namely, what Stone Container is going to do about pollution in the future.
To say there's no love lost between these groups is an understatement. Nevertheless, the formal "pollution prevention project" called for by the consent decree signed last week by Stone and the environmental groups, including Montana CHEER, Cold Mountain, Cold Rivers and the Native Forest Network, has placed a man in the middle of this tenuous truce who both sides say they trust.
Robert Projasek, an independent consultant from Massachusetts who has worked with pulp and paper producers across the country, will come to Missoula sometime in the next year to evaluate the safety and pollution prevention features of Stone's Frenchtown mill, eight miles west of Missoula.
Though a date hasn't been set, Projasek says he's looking forward to showing both workers and management how the mill can get up to speed. "The people who work at the mill are very qualified," Projasek says. "But any company, no matter how sophisticated they are, has room for improvement.
"An outside set of eyes can help any company do better, and I think Stone understands this."
During the next five years, Stone will analyze its day-to-day operations, figure out how to increase safety, and look for ways to decrease air and water pollution. According to the 18-page decree, which bears the signatures of the citizen environmentalists and mill manager Bob Boschee, Stone will produce an annual report of its progress which will be made available to the plaintiffs.
According to Darrell Geist, president of Cold Mountain, Cold Rivers, "The negotiation was geared toward changing the way they think. We wanted to get them to address the economics of pollution prevention. This creates a feedback mechanism so that we can provide opportunities for significant environmental improvements mill-wide."
Among the immediate issues the activists would like addressed-and which the mill has agreed to look at-is the possibility of changing to a chlorine-free bleaching system. That would decrease the production of deadly cancer-causing dioxins, the enviros say, and reduce the risk of workplace exposure to volatile chemicals.
The mill has also promised to examine its practice of burning plastic materials left over from its cardboard recycling process. Public health experts and environmentalists have long complained this practice adds carcinogens to the mill's air emissions.
One of the remaining points of contention concerns how much oversight the plaintiffs will have. The environmentalists say Stone's duty to report emission violations gives them status as a "watchdog group"-a contention Boschee discounts out of hand. He allows that the mill will address Projasek's concerns, adding that he will make all information available per the legal agreement.
But he says flatly, "I don't expect any sharing-type meetings. We'll report what we've done according to the consent decree, but I don't envision any partnership with this group. We'll be having no joint discussions about how we can do this, that or the other."
From his standpoint, Projasek says, such resistance could be expected. "There remains resentment," he says. "That would happen if someone came and did a similar thing to you or me, and it's too bad. But it's happened with each of the companies I've worked with."
What's more important, says Projasek, is that "we're going to have definitive action plans, and they'll be held accountable."
Charlie Tebbutt, the environmentalists' lawyer (and a man who made a name for himself by bringing the spotted owl lawsuit in the Pacific Northwest), remains philosophical about the deal. He points out that a comprehensive pollution prevention plan (in conjunction with the money Stone is giving to county, state and federal agencies for habitat restoration, air and water quality studies, and to pay off fines), spells big gains for the community.
Plus, Tebbutt says, over the course of the next few years, Stone will be forced to take a good look in the mirror and not just beautify its image, but justify its actions. "This consent decree doesn't tell Stone what to do," he says. "What it does is open up possible changes, and what's going to be critical over the next few years is that Stone open its mind to doing business in a new way."
Despite the fact that Bob Boschee maintains Stone, in many ways, has been targeted unfairly-he discounts almost all the allegations in the environmentalists' lawsuit-he ultimately agrees that the company is ready to change some of the ways it addresses the public's concern.
"The fact that this was resolved in a way to benefit the community was very important," he says. "We haven't been entirely unresponsive, but we used to be in a mode where we just ignored things. We've begun to provide information, and we hope to see some fruits of that in the community."
A consent decree between Missoula enviros and Stone Container will help the paper mill develop a formal pollution prevention plan during the next five years. Photo by Jeff Powers.