The Missoula City-County Health Department last week authorized filing a lawsuit against the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. If all goes as planned, the suit will seek to stop DEQ from permitting the new owners of the shuttered Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. property from discharging destructive levels of contaminants into the Clark Fork.
“This basically takes us back in time in terms of pollution, and this river, and this valley, and this entire basin, that we’ve worked for decades to clean up,” City-County Health Department Director Ellen Leahy told the board when citing local rationale for moving ahead with the lawsuit against the state.
The health board’s unanimous decision to file suit comes in response to DEQ’s March announcement that it would grant the shuttered paper mill’s new owners, M2 Green, a wastewater discharge permit allowing the company or its successors to pump contaminants into the Clark Fork that twice exceed those currently emitted by Missoula’s Wastewater Treatment Plant.
“Somebody could bring in an agribusiness, industrial agricultural operation, manufacturing, processing, chickens, pigs, you name it,” Missoula Valley Water Quality District Supervisor Peter Nielsen said in an interview after last week’s health board meeting. “There’s lots of places in the country where the rules are tightening down on industries like that. This would be the place where it’s remaining loose.”
The Clark Fork Coalition and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are also poised to join the lawsuit.
M2 Green did not respond to requests for comment. DEQ cited pending litigation when declining to discuss the permit.
The pending lawsuit constitutes the latest development in the former paper mill’s saga. In 2011, M2 Green, a subsidiary of the Green Investment Group Inc., purchased the 3,200-acre property, stating its intention to erect a wind turbine manufacturing operation there. To date, that plan has not come to fruition, and M2 Green owes more than $460,000 in property taxes to Missoula County.
In August 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency found that the byproduct of decades of paper-making at the site—contaminants such as arsenic, dioxins and furans—remain in the soil and groundwater. In 2013, the EPA proposed designating the property a Superfund site. County officials say such a listing is essential to ensure those responsible for the contamination are forced to pay for the remediation. The earliest possible Superfund listing would be this fall.