Written by Abby Volkmann*
Montana has some of the nation’s richest backcountry wildlands, with habitat for grizzly bears and mountain lions, exceptionally clear skies, and solitude. These pristine areas, however, are under threat by climate change, urbanization, and over-allocation of water supplies. Missoula and its surrounding communities are working hard to build a more sustainable future, and in doing so, helping slow the imperiling of these special places. An essential part of developing sustainable communities is taking care of local environmental resources, which includes coordinating a strong environmental ethos and fostering economic development. One tactic is to restore heavily polluted land and develop it into a multi-use space that promotes environmental health and sustainable economic growth.
As a case study, Bonner, Montana was home to the Milltown Dam, which was responsible for contaminating the local drinking water wells and blocking the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers. The dam’s removal was indeed successful, resulting in the restored floodplain with the confluence of the two rivers opening for fish migration and public recreation. Additionally, the town’s former mill site was redeveloped into a thriving industrial business park that includes a brewery and concert amphitheater, employing approximately 450 locals. The case of economic revival in Bonner paired with the remediation and restoration of the area’s Clark Fork and Blackfoot watersheds serves as a model to conservationists and developers demonstrating the potential for sustainable development in western Montana. Lessons about this collaborative approach, benefits for the environment, and the resulting economic opportunities can be extrapolated and applied to similar spaces such as the former Smurfit-Stone paper mill property in Frenchtown, Montana. This property in Frenchtown is one such site that could, if restored and redeveloped, improve health, economic, and environmental outcomes in the area now and well into the future.
Smurfit-Stone Container Corp.’s paper mill property is located on 3,200 acres adjacent to the Clark Fork River south of Frenchtown. The large industrial site has been dormant since 2010, when the corporation closed down its Frenchtown plant and laid off approximately 400 workers. Smurfit-Stone failed to clean up their facilities and infrastructure after shutting down their plant, and multiple studies illustrate how cancer-causing chemicals (dioxins, furans, and heavy metals) that were left in the site’s sludge ponds, groundwater, and river sediments pose real threats to humans and aquatic life located in the Clark Fork Watershed. These pollutants are known carcinogens that interfere with hormone and reproductive functions in both humans and wildlife. In fact, due to bioaccumulation of the site’s pollutants, as well as fears about large flood years that might bring more pollutants into the river, there is a “do not eat” advisory for northern pike and a “4 meal per month” limit for rainbow trout caught in the area. Furthermore, dioxins, furans, and heavy metals have been included in the EPA’s list of the most dangerous pollutants in the world.
As the EPA continues its long investigation into contamination hazards at the site, action in support of the remediation, restoration, and redevelopment of the Smurfit-Stone property has been delayed. Property ownership has also changed hands several times, creating confusion over who is ultimately culpable for cleanup. The list of potentially responsible parties includes several large out-of-state corporations, including Green Investment Group, Inc., which purchased the property from Smurfit-Stone in 2011, International Paper and WestRock, which acquired Smurfit-Stone’s assets when they went bankrupt. In 2015, these responsible parties entered an agreement with the EPA (known as an “Administrative Order on Consent”) and initiated a remedial investigation, which is currently underway. In short, even though the site has not yet been formally listed as a Superfund site, the responsible parties have agreed to voluntarily comply with the a site-wide investigation – with EPA oversight and public involvement – and will be required to pay for any mandated cleanup.
The area has potential for redevelopment similar to Bonner’s successful transformation. The Frenchtown property is connected to railways and has power and water infrastructure in place, which means that even just the cleanup of hazardous substances from the floodplain would benefit the local economy and environment, even before construction begins on new structures. The area could be transformed into a mixed-use space including agriculture lands, a business park with spaces for community gatherings, restored wetlands, riparian habitat, or even public lands. Stakeholders must act faster to promote a positive outcome for the environment, the economy, and the community. The possibilities being endless here at Smurfit. First things first, though: EPA should move aggressively to clean it up.
– Abby Volkmann is writing and blogging on a wide range of climate change topics, consulting for the City of Los Angeles on the Great Streets Initiative, and consulting with Bucconi University in Milan, Italy on a pollution control project for the City of Milan, Italy. Visit her blog to learn more: https://www.abbyvolkmann.com/
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