The former Smurfit-Stone mill site between Missoula and Frenchtown was shuttered in 2010 leaving hundreds of workers without a job and a facility in decay.
Thursday top county leaders met with Governor Brian Schweitzer to urge him to write a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency asking for the old Smurfit site to be designated a Superfund site.
This meeting comes after EPA tests found significant levels of contamination in the sludge ponds and landfills near the site.
“The ground water is grossly contaminated and it's flowing to the river,” said division supervisor for the Water Quality District Peter Nielsen. “The concern is about it getting into the river and into the sediment and into the fish that people eat out of the river.”
Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss said it was a good thing to have the EPA do an assessment of the site. “So far this is a pretty preliminary assessment and it hasn't done a lot of test sites but even what [at the test sites] they found things that we don't want in our water system.”
Schweitzer agrees the site desperately needs to be cleaned up.
“If you think it's in the best interest of the community I will absolutely send that letter and I'll send it with exclamation marks,” Schweitzer said.
Missoula County Commissioners say the goal is protect public health and safety and to redevelop the site so it can be used in the future. They say the EPA will be crucial in making this process happen.
“Once they get a letter from a governor proposing it should be a Superfund site then it kicks the wheels into motion,” said Schweitzer.
Officials say part of the goal is to get the companies responsible for causing the contamination to pay for the investigation and cleanup of the site. They say they do not want local and state taxpayers to have to foot the bill.
“The parties that were responsible for the mess get to pay to clean up the mess,” said Curtiss. “The Superfund listing has the EPA help negotiate that and make sure it's done in the right manner and thoroughly.”
Officials are concerned that if the Clark Fork overflows, contamination from the old Smurfit site will draw the toxins into the river.
“Our goal is to have the materials in the floodplain landfill there, sludge and the landfill materials, removed and put into a lined and capped facility where they won't wash downstream,” said Nielsen.
“I think we know from Bonner and Milltown that the reclamation economy in Montana creates thousands of jobs and it's hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Schweitzer. “This will be another example of creating jobs locally while were cleaning up the mistakes of the past.”
Missoula County Commissioners will be holding a meeting in Frenchtown early next month to give the public a better idea of what the plan will be if the old Smurfit site is declared a Superfund project.
NBC Montana will keep following this story and we will bring you an update as we learn more.