MISSOULA — The owners of the former Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. paper mill site in Frenchtown say designating the area a Superfund site would hinder bringing back jobs.
Ray Stillwell, manager for M2Green Redevelopment LLC, said such a designation would slow development, and he would rather state officials oversee the cleanup.
“If you look at any Superfund site, the bureaucracy imposed is going to delay any job creation or economic activity there,” Stillwell told the Missoulian. “It’s not because they’re not good people, but they have a system that takes months and years, compared to equally professional and qualified people at the state level.”
The 3,200-acre site is among nine that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding to the Superfund National Priorities List last week. The public has 60 days to comment on the proposed listing, which would make the sites eligible for more cleanup resources.
The site near the Clark Fork River is contaminated with dioxins, furans, arsenic and manganese associated with the former mill’s wastewater and sludge ponds. The EPA says no private residential or municipal drinking water wells appear to have been affected.
Missoula County commissioners, the Tribal Council of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and former Gov. Brian Schweitzer have expressed support for the listing.
But Stillwell said he would rather the company handle the site cleanup.
“The focus for us is to do investigation and remediation to standards, in a way that allows us to avoid the delays and stigma that inherently comes with Superfund designation,” he said. “We have opportunities that are now not moving forward because of the uncertainty.”
Peter Nielsen, Missoula County environmental health supervisor, said the local government supported the federal decision.
“The issue isn’t what label you put on it, the issue is contamination in the ground,” Nielsen said. “Bankers know that, and they won’t lend money unless you’re dealing with it. It was a pulp mill that operated for 57 years and there’s contamination there. Everybody knows that.”
Stillwell also said the EPA’s plan to include all 3,200 acres in the Superfund National Priorities List, or NPL, was wrong because much of that area wasn’t contaminated.
“The areas known to have contamination issues are very limited areas,” Stillwell said. “Even (Missoula) County says about 165 acres are affected. To impact the entire site, through an NPL listing, is shutting down development of lands really ready to go. Many parcels never saw any industrial activity at all.”
Nielsen agreed the entire site might not be contaminated.
“We said there should be an expedited process to look at portions that may not be contaminated, and exclude them from further work,” Nielsen said. “But that doesn’t mean you exclude places where sampling hasn’t been done. You can’t say things are clearly clean. There has to be some investigation to get to that point.”
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