The messy politics of revealing Stimson’s skeletons
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Gov. Brian Schweitzer, center, disclosed the cooling pond issue at Stimson Lumber Co. Aug. 5 in Bonner.
Photo by Chad Harder
No sooner than the pulse went flat on the Stimson Lumber Co. sawmill in Bonner, former mill and lumberyard laborers began telling stories. Now, the evidence behind some of those old worker tales is starting to materialize.
On Aug. 5, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) announced its plans to cleanup one known pollutant source left by the company—a small cooling pond contaminated with highly carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other toxins. Gov. Brian Schweitzer joined DEQ Director Richard Opper at the neighboring Bonner School to promote the state’s still-undefined proposal at a high-profile press conference.
“It’s only a matter of time,” Schweitzer said of the cooling pond’s vulnerability to major flood events. “It’s a ticking time bomb.”
The pool appears as a bright green dot on aerial site maps where it sits just meters from the Blackfoot River. The DEQ wants to excavate the PCB-tainted sediment, removing some 87,000 cubic yards of dirt from the Stimson riverfront.
That project alone will cost Montana taxpayers $5–7 million, says Opper. How the state plans to get that money back from the Portland, Ore.-based lumber company after construction commences remains a mystery, even to the state. Neither Opper nor Schweitzer could elaborate on any plans to recuperate future expenses by way of state Superfund status or a natural resources damage claim. Opper describes budget resources as “limited.”
But the story runs deeper than one highly publicized and potentially half-baked government decision. Accounts collected from ex-millers—many put out of work when the plant closed its doors in May—indicate that there are at least a half-dozen more relatively serious contamination issues at the old mill site. The former employees suspect the DEQ holds a higher count, having received whistleblower complaints on the plant for several years prior to its shutdown.
Opper alluded to one separate contamination report at the Bonner press conference and the corresponding DEQ investigation that remains ongoing. The millers say that the investigation stems from complaints they filed with the DEQ alleging Stimson perpetually allowed the spilling of timber-treating chemicals into the Blackfoot River. The chemicals reportedly came from dip tanks used to peel external layers off of processed logs.
“These tanks had to be periodically drained and cleaned. The water—we referred to it as vat juice—it was dark purple and really rancid smelling,” says Mike Woodworth, who worked at the mill for 31 years. “That water settled out, drained out over the ground and eventually went into the river.”
Woodworth says the contamination events happened several times a year. Additionally, the thicker sludge from the vats reportedly sat in large piles until the hot summer days caused the chemicals within to spontaneously combust. The sludge fires burned as recently as July, according to neighbors who spoke with the Indy.
Peter Nielsen, environmental health supervisor for the Missoula City-County Health Department, says the company allegedly spilled a large amount of the vat juice into the Blackfoot when it turned off its boilers on June 6. Whether or not that confluence matches the millers’ accounts he couldn’t say, but both sources mention the spills occurring in close proximity to the same pair of public wells. “There was quite a volume of discharge,” Nielson says.
Some of the millers’ complaints date back decades, but, officially, the DEQ has known about various chemical spill issues at the plant since 2002. The reasoning for waiting until now to make the public
disclosure appears largely political. Schweitzer is currently running for re-election and Opper recently fell under intense criticism for mismanaging agency resources.
Opper and Schweitzer maintain the timing has to do with the fact Stimson kept using its Bonner facilities—including the cooling pond—until the May closure. Community pressure to keep those jobs rolling as long as possible, for good or ill, also may have kept the lid on any plans to enforce environmental quality regulations.
“The state of Montana, bless their hearts, were looking out for the workers here and the community of Bonner by keeping that mill running,” Woodworth says. “They really bent over backwards to work with Stimson to keep them from closing that plant.”
The inaction on the lumber company’s part proves equally complicated, since the involvement of the DEQ certainly promises a more costly cleanup. Jeff Webber, a Stimson executive, told the Independent the DEQ’s announcement came as a surprise.
“The issues are complex and we’re currently hiring a consultant to analyze everything,” Webber says. “When the timing is right and we got all the right fixes, we’ll be working on them.”
Webber declined to provide the company’s response to specific contamination issues—including the cooling pond and the vat juice discharges—stating they don’t have all the facts together yet. Opper also dodged questions as to the history of talks with Stimson.
Local developer Scott Cooney, who owns most of the houses around the mill site, characterizes the situation as a game of cat and mouse. Cooney asserts Stimson knew about the press conference because Webber reportedly called up various community members after the DEQ announced the event. “To say he wasn’t aware of it was asinine,” Cooney says. “It’s an outright lie.”
“Mr. Cooney’s allegations are not correct,” Webber responds. He maintains that he spent much of the afternoon prior to the state’s announcement on the phone, but never discovered the purpose of Schweitzer and Opper’s press conference until just before it began. “The announcement was a surprise—no doubt about that.”
Regardless of what now happens with enforcement, county health officials expect to see plenty more of the old mill site. Nielsen suspects his agency will continue finding environmental skeletons in Bonner long after Stimson sells the property, which officially went on the market Aug. 7 for $16 million.
“You only know what you know, and what you don’t know you find out about later,” he says.