Monies obtained for damages to natural resources from years of pollution at the Smurfit Stone mill site in Frenchtown will be split between a group of Trustees, before the actual cleanup costs have been determined.

The Trustees include the State of Montana, the United States, the Confederate Salish  Kootenai Tribes and the Kalispell Tribe.

Science Director for the Clark Fork Coalition, John DeArment explains the role of the trustees.

“They essentially hold the natural resources of that area, the soil, the water and the fish in trust for the public, and if those natural resources have been damaged by toxic substances from the milling that’s gone on out there over the years,” said DeArment. “Those groups are entitled under federal law to seek compensation from the responsible parties on behalf of the public to replace or remediate those damaged resources.”

The decision released last Friday states that the natural resource claim is warranted, however, any funds collected for this purpose are not the actual costs for cleaning up the site.

“Even if you clean up the area, there is still the loss of natural resource value that the Trustees have incurred,” said DeArment. “For instance, there’s a total ban on the consumption of Northern Pike in the Clark Fork River, and there’s a partial ban, down to one meal per month on trout. Even if the site is cleaned up under the Super Fund, that loss of fishing will go on for a long time, so the law requires that the Trustees be compensated for that loss.”

What damages are assessed and charged to the responsible parties will likely end up in court.

“If either the EPA and the responsible parties can’t reach an agreement on the cleanup, or the Trustees and the responsible parties can’t reach an agreement on the natural resource damage claim, then, ultimately, they would look to the courts for relief and some kind of resolution,” he said.

DeArment did not have an overall estimate of the possible cleanup costs for either the Smurfit Stone Super Fund site, or the natural resource damage claim, however the most recent example might be the removal of the Milltown Dam and the over 1.5 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment that had to be removed, where the total cost was between $120 and $125 million dollars.

The responsible parties include West Rock, M2Green, International Paper, BNSF Railroad and Montana Rail Link.