Frenchtown Mill Owner Says Site is Clean

By Beacon Staff

MISSOULA – The shuttered Frenchtown paper mill doesn’t need any more work to remove possible hazardous materials before it is sold, an official with Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. says.

Company spokeswoman Lisa Esneault, in an e-mail to the Missoulian, said the company has already made cleanup efforts.

“When we discontinued operations at the Missoula mill more than a year ago, we developed a detailed strategy for removing all residual process materials subject to environmental regulation,” Esneault wrote. “We discussed our plans with the (Montana Department of Environmental Quality) at that time and have since implemented all activities as promised. This work is now complete and we believe all environmental issues at the mill have been appropriately addressed.”

But Richard Opper, Montana Department of Environmental Quality director, said that decades of operations at the site by former owners may have left toxins, and that the site may contain asbestos.

He said the agency and Smurfit-Stone are discussing a voluntary assessment of the property for possible environmental hazards.

“The company is generally pretty cooperative about this, but I’m not sure I buy that last line,” Opper said of Esneault’s assertion that environmental issues have been addressed. “They were a responsible company and I don’t accuse them of acting in bad faith at all. But this is a 50-year-old industrial site that’s been abandoned and hasn’t been under the same ownership all that time.”

Smurfit-Stone earlier this month announced plans to sell the paper mill to MLR Investments LLC, an affiliate of Ralston Investments of Portland, Ore.

Smurfit says the buyer is looking at using the site to produce electricity from biomass, which local officials say could bring jobs to the region.

“We’re very encouraged there may be a viable alternative that would put people to work,” said Dick King, director of the Missoula Area Economic Development Corp. “We’ve supplied information to several potential buyers about programs that could be made available for the right project.”

Programs include state workforce training money and reductions in county property taxes.

King said a power-generating plant could bring up to 50 jobs. Up to 300 jobs might be available, he said, if a pulp production operation returns.

“When Smurfit closed, there were 417 direct jobs on the inside and 1,500 indirect jobs lost,” King said. “It’s really gotten through to people what that facility was for economic activity across much of Montana.”

Smurfit owns 3,200 acres on about four miles of the Clark Fork River. About 800 acres is taken up with cooling ponds that are in the river’s flood plain. The mill itself sits on about 200 acres, and sludge ponds occupy about 67 acres.

“We can’t stop a sale of the company, but before a sale occurs we’d like to see this work done,” Opper said. “A new buyer may be inheriting an unknown amount of liability.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.