Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has finally agreed to conduct more sampling for toxins at the Smurfit-Stone mill site.

During Thursday’s meeting of the Frenchtown Smurfit Stone Community Advisory Group, group member Jeri Delys read a recent email from EPA Regional administrator KC Becker saying the EPA had agreed to do more sampling, as requested by Missoula County and the community advisory group. The Missoula County commission had sent a formal request for more sampling in October.

“We have decided to move forward with the sampling you requested prior to finalizing the remedial investigation report. We are looking at how to best move forward with the additional sampling expeditiously, but expect that this additional work will delay issuance of the report,” Becker wrote.

The county and the citizens advisory group have long pushed for more sampling in the more polluted areas of the mill site. In November 2021, the county had an in-person meeting with Becker shortly after she took over as the EPA Region 8 administrator to voice their concerns.

The EPA stopped most sampling in 2018 and planned to base its assessments and cleanup planning on that data. But as the EPA started to release reports to the public, the county and members of the public questioned why more sampling wasn’t done in areas known to contain toxic remnants, such as settling ponds or an area containing 55-gallon drums of pulp-manufacturing fluid.

The drums don’t appear to be leaking yet but that could change. Yet, the EPA doesn’t plan to remove the drums.

“Based on how risk is being defined, if there’s low risk, could we still come out with an option that would say ‘remove all the material in the dump’?” Strohmaier said in the November 2021 meeting. “It’s that disconnect between what we’d like to see – get the doggone dump completely cleaned up – versus what’s being detected in the testing.”

The county is also concerned about what toxins might be released into the Clark Fork River in the event another high water year sweeps away the earthen berms. The EPA has yet to really address the future of the berms.

The shuttered and abandoned Smurfit-Stone site west of Missoula. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current file)
The shuttered and abandoned Smurfit-Stone site west of Missoula. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current file)
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EPA project manager Allie Archer had told the county commissioners in November 2021 that the EPA was satisfied with the sampling that was done and to wait until the remedial investigation report was published. Archer has repeatedly said that the EPA will sample and clean up only those areas proven to have been polluted by the mill site.

But without thorough sampling, it’s impossible to know what is polluted. The county commissioners continued to push for more sampling, which led to the letter they sent in October. Now, their request has finally been granted.

On Thursday, Archer said her team was developing a new sampling plan to address the commissioners’ concerns, particularly around the pulp plant industrial area and the wastewater treatment and holding ponds, which covered a large area. The current owners of the mill site would have to approve the plan since they’ll have to pay for the work.

“Whatever happens there - they may or may not do all the sampling - then the EPA will look at ways to also conduct the sampling,” Archer said.

The EPA’s remedial investigation report had been slated to be released in December, Archer said, but the additional sampling postponed it. Now, it could be published “as late as December 2025, which pushes the cleanup decision to 2028.”

Archer said the process could move more quickly if all the sampling can be done in one season.

In the meantime, organizations led by Montana Trout Unlimited will begin their sampling of water and fish tissue in late March or early April, said Fish, Wildlife & Parks water pollution biologist Trevor Selch. That sampling, announced in December, is funded by an EPA Columbia River Basin Restoration Funding Assistance Program grant.

The sampling isn’t specific to the Smurfit Stone mill pollution - work will be conducted all along the Clark Fork River from Silver Bow Creek near Butte to Noxon Reservoir near the Montana-Idaho border. But it could add to the existing Smurfit fish tissue data.

However, Archer said she doesn’t know yet how or if the EPA would use the data.
The Smurfit Stone pulp mill manufactured cardboard using a process that involved several toxins including dioxins, furans and PCB’s. Water polluted by the process was shunted to several settling ponds on the mill site.

The toxins remained after the mill closed in 2010. Since then, concerned citizens and the EPA have struggled to make sure the federal cleanup process is thorough. Sometimes, they’ve run into resistance from the new landowners - the “potentially responsible parties” - who have to pay for the sampling and cleanup.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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