By Sherry Devlin/Missoula Current
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials assured Missoula County Tuesday that more than 8 miles of earthen berms at the former Smurfit-Stone pulp mill will be inspected throughout this spring’s peak runoff to ensure they are not breached, sending toxins into the Clark Fork River.
“We understand that the berms are important to the community,” EPA community involvement coordinator Robert Moler told a dozen local, state, tribal and federal officials gathered for a quarterly teleconference on the Frenchtown Superfund site.
The hour-long meeting also touched on cleanup plans for PCB contamination in two areas at the mill, the full 2017 work schedule, a newly constituted citizen advisory group, recent water quality tests and a recently completed soil analysis.
But with water already rising in the Clark Fork, the berms were on everyone’s mind.
“What is the timeline?” asked Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “What is the contingency plan should there be a breach of the berms?”
“The process does take time,” Moler said, “but we recognize the berms are a priority and we are moving forward.”
Built between 1958 and 1970, the berms were intended to quarantine polluted water and papermaking chemicals in ponds – and out of the Clark Fork, which runs alongside the now-shuttered mill.
An estimated 4.7 miles of berms run directly adjacent to the river. Another 3.7 miles of berms are in the interior of the mill site, where they outline the sludge ponds.
Unlined ponds cover more than 900 acres of the 3,200-acre mill site; they were used to store treated and untreated wastewater – and the sludge that dropped out of untreated wastewater, according to the EPA.
Some of the ponds were first used to store wastewater, then were drained and used as “landfills” for solid waste from the plant.
When Smurfit-Stone closed in 2010, some of the ponds were drained. Others continue to hold chemical and solid wastes.
Sara Sparks, the EPA’s remedial project manager, said the agency is negotiating with the mill site’s present and former owners – the “potentially responsible parties” – on a plan for the berms’ inspection.
“We hope to have something in place in the near term,” she said.
Following the teleconference, Sparks said the EPA’s “intent is to ensure the PRPs begin the inspections before high runoff on the Clark Fork River, as well as during peak flow.”
Those flows are expected to be higher than usual this spring because of this winter’s abundant snowpack.
“Inspections will continue monthly until the PRPs are able to conduct the berm stability investigation,” Sparks said. “The intent of the inspections is to ensure the berms are stable and to prevent the Clark Fork River from entering the site.”
A March 29 walk-through of the berms by state and federal environmental officials and the current and former owners revealed no “immediate problems,” Sparks said. “We saw no berm failures.”
The EPA has no documentation to suggest that the berms have failed in the past, she added.
Still, the agency wants the PRPs to conduct a full berm stability investigation, so any weakened sections can be fortified. The berms are a critical piece of protection for the river.
During Tuesday’s call, Peter Nielsen, with Missoula’s City-County Water Quality Bureau, said his understanding is that the PRPs are contesting their responsibility for the berms. “Is that still true?” he asked.
“We are negotiating with the PRPs to conduct both the inspections and the investigation of the berms,” said Sparks.
“So they are still contesting their responsibility?” asked Nielsen.
“We are still negotiating with the PRPs,” came Sparks’ reply.
Katherine Hague-Housrath, an attorney for the state of Montana’s Natural Resource Damage Program, phoned in to Tuesday’s conference to ask about priorities.
“Where is the rationale for the cleanup priorities?” she asked. Why aren’t the berms’ stability on this year’s priority list? Why is the PCB cleanup a higher priority than the berms?
The answer, from Moler and Sparks, indicated the EPA places a high priority on both efforts – cleanup of the PCB-contaminated areas and stabilization of the berms.
The 2017 soil contamination report identified two areas of PCB contamination at the former pulp mill. A removal plan for those soils will soon be complete, and will be open for a two-week comment period, Sparks said.
PCBs, short for polychlorinated biphenyls, are man-made organic chemicals whose manufacture was banned in 1979 after they were shown to cause cancer in animals.
Other health effects linked to PCBs include a weakening of the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system and endocrine systems, and other health effects.
“We hope to complete removal of the PCB contamination by the end of 2017,” Sparks said Tuesday. “We are working with the PRPs on that.”
The potentially responsible parties – the companies that must pay for the Superfund cleanup at Smurfit-Stone – are M2Green, which owns the site, and former owners Westrock CP (which purchased Smurfit-Stone) and International Paper (which purchased Champion International).
Also to be released this year are results of deep well samples taken at the site and across the river – and down-gradient – at the Clark Fork Cattle Co. An ecological risk assessment is due out in mid-June, and additional soil sampling is planned in the months to come.
A pulp mill and paper making plant operated at the Frenchtown site from 1957 to 2010. The core industrial footprint of the mill site covers about 100 acres, according to EPA figures.
Part of the agency’s description of the site says: “Various hazardous substances were used or produced on site, including bleaching chemicals. The use of chlorine for the bleaching of pulp produces chlorinated organic compounds, including dioxins and furans, through the reaction of chlorine with residual lignin.
“The site includes landfills used to dispose of solid wastes, including general mill refuse, boiler fly ash, lime kiln grits, ragger wire and asbestos.”
An initial screening by EPA determined that “the site’s primary contamination sources include four sludge ponds, an emergency spill pond, an exposed soil pile adjacent to a landfill, a wastewater storage pond and a soil land farming area.”
Moler said a citizens’ advisory committee is forming to provide an outside review panel for the cleanup effort. That group will include a diversity of area stakeholders, he said, including former mill workers, community members from Missoula and Frenchtown, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Clark Fork Coalition, scientists from the University of Montana, Frenchtown Rural Fire and small business owners, among others.
Sherry Devlin is a longtime Missoula journalist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.