If the new regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency learned anything from her meeting with Missoula County, it was that those wanting to clean up the Smurfit-Stone mill site are frustrated.

“This process has been glacial at best,” said Missoula County commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “We don’t want to sacrifice quality and thoroughness, because we ultimately want this cleaned up and done well. But if there are ways that we can, as a local government, be an advocate for more resources, whatever it takes to increase the quality of the work and make this happen quicker rather than longer, so much the better.”

Newly appointed EPA Region 8 administrator KC Becker met with the county commission, the Frenchtown Smurfit Stone Community Advisory Group and members of the public this week as part of her tour of contaminated sites in Montana. President Joe Biden appointed Becker, a former U.S. Department of the Interior attorney, in November after she termed out of the Colorado Legislature.

Having held the administer position for only seven months, Becker said she wanted to learn the county's priorities and objectives for the Smurfit-Stone site.

Those assembled tried to be patient as they launched into the same explanations they gave three years ago to then-newly appointed Region 8 administrator Greg Sopkin and to others during the dozen years since the Smurfit-Stone mill site shut down. In May 2019, the Trump administration appointed Sopkin, who then left the position in November 2020 after Biden’s election.

“When I took office six years ago, we had this identical conversation in a different room of this building,” Strohmaier said. “So that’s part of the frustration – not so much that it’s taking a long time; it’s the fact that we’ve been saying the same things for a such a long time.”

During their allotted hour, the county commissioners and staff tried to boil down the situation and emphasize the need for their main priorities: more thorough sampling to determine the true extent of contamination; a cleanup that reduces the level of contamination to residential standards; and removal of the 8 miles of earthen berm that separates the river from the site.

Environmental health manager Elena Evans said the county’s desire for higher residential cleanup standards is the result of the fast population change around Missoula, which negates the original prediction for possible development at the site. That also means that more thorough sampling is needed, because the one sample per 20 acres or 100 acres collected by the EPA probably wouldn’t reveal contamination that could turn up later in high-density development, Evans said.

“Folks who’ve been here a while can speak to how rapidly our community is growing. We are hemmed in by mountains, so there will be growth into that area. So it will likely be residential. So that drives our interest in the level of cleanup out there,” Evans said. “Everything (in the cleanup) is built off of the sampling density. We want to be confident that if our neighbors, our friends, our kids are out there poking around with sticks and drinking the water, that we feel safe having that kind of thing.”

Montana’s cool spring brought rain-on-snow events that led to rapid flooding of areas in and around Yellowstone National Park and the Flathead River near Columbia Falls a few weeks ago. The Clark Fork River didn’t get as high this year, but the commissioners remembered worrying about the berm during the high waters of 2018, when the groundwater came up in the waste ponds and the river cut deeper into its banks.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted that climate change will cause an increased likelihood of more atmospheric rivers bringing heavy rains like the one that swept over Yellowstone. It’s only a matter of time until one affects the Clark Fork River, said Citizens Advisory Group member Bruce Sims.

“I don’t think the EPA could tell me how much contaminant would go into the river should that occur,” Sims said.

Commissioner Josh Slotnick urged Becker to help speed the EPA process so contaminants aren’t swept down the Clark Fork River if the berms are breached.

“There’s a tremendous amount of popular interest in getting this done, which has always existed. But given the floods that we’ve recently seen on the other side of the (Continental) Divide, you can turn that interest up to 11,” Slotnick said. “The consequences are spectacular, so the time for foot-dragging is over. An inadvertent cleanup could happen for us if we don’t take the reins.”

EPA project manager Allie Archer said the berm wasn’t included in recent reports because they don’t contain hazardous material, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be excluded from the final cleanup actions. In the meantime, her team monitors the berm monthly and is comfortable with the decision not to remove the berm.

Becker said she might be able to speed things up but that would mean less opportunity for public comment. Strohmaier asked why it had to be either/or.

The commissioners pointed to the recent cleanup along a Montana Rail Link spur and asked why some cleanup couldn’t occur concurrently with the remaining assessment. They are especially concerned about leaks developing in the 55-gallon barrels filled with contaminants that are buried in the mill dumps.

Archer said the Smurfit contamination “doesn’t rise to the trigger” requiring a rapid removal since it’s not actively releasing pollution like during the British Petroleum oil release in the Gulf of Mexico. Once again, Archer explained the EPA sequence of reports and actions spelled out in the Superfund process. Her team has completed their sampling and reports for the human-health risk and has not yet finished the feasibility studies that would eventually lead to a cleanup proposal. When she offered to display the timeline, the commissioners said they’d seen it a hundred times.

Fish, Wildlife & Parks fish biologist David Schmetterling said other trustees such as the state and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes had additional requests for the EPA to do more to characterize how the Smurfit site might have contributed to pollution downstream in the Clark Fork River.

In early 2021, based on fish-tissue samples from 2018 and 2019, FWP updated its 2013 fish-consumption advisory to warn anglers not to eat pike or rainbow trout out of the Clark Fork River between the Bitterroot and Flathead river confluences due to high levels of dioxins and dioxin-like PCB’s, toxins produced by pulp mills.

 “The site has not been adequately characterized to understand the contaminants on the site and in the environment. We’re afraid that this process is going to go down a path that doesn’t lead to adequate cleanup,” Schmetterling said. “This is the one chance we have for this.”

Dioxins were found in fish as far downstream as St. Regis, but Archer has said the EPA won’t conduct any more fish sampling because the agency is only concerned with cleaning up the Smurfit site. It was even a struggle to get the EPA to include results from the fish sampling completed in 2018, because exact EPA protocol wasn’t followed and Archer said the EPA worried about having to defend the results in court if questioned by the potentially responsible parties.

The potentially responsible parties, the site owners, are on the hook to pay for assessment and cleanup activities and include Newfields, West Rock, International Paper and Wakefield Kennedy. Over the years, they’ve protested having to pay for some EPA actions, which leaves county residents frustrated with what appears to be the EPA’s lack of resolve. On Wednesday, people said they feel like the EPA has ignored several comments so they questioned whether less public comment would really matter.

“You don’t have to clean up anything if you don’t detect it. We’ve been asking for a much more robust sampling of the site for a long time to truly assess risk and better inform the next step in the process,” said Todd Seib, Missoula Valley Water Quality District specialist. “Many stakeholders have been asking for the same thing. Comments have been requested. We’ve provided comments. Comments have been responded to but maybe not addressed.”

Becker said she’d consider what she heard in the meeting and return in a couple months.

“I take community values and goals, I hold that very high. Everything administrator Regan talks about is community, community, community. So that is a value in this administration for sure,” Becker said. “This is not the end of the conversation. Whatever we do next, how do we make sure that people are confident in the process, the processes and the science?”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.