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County hires group to prepare comments for EPA

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This 2010 aerial photo provided by Missoula County shows the Clark Fork River’s ability to breach the dikes at the shuttered Smurfit Stone Container Corp. mill site and reclaim its historic floodplain.

By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

It’s not yet known with scientific certainty what lies in the water and soil near a shuttered pulp and paper mill near Frenchtown. But when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency releases its test results this spring, Missoula County will be waiting with comments, looking to inject the voice of local stakeholders into the larger discussion on cleanup and eventual reclamation.

Over the past week, the Clark Fork River has played a central theme in several discussions held between commissioners and county staff. Amid talks on the river’s historic ebb and flow, flooding and channel migration, commissioners quietly signed a contract with River Design Group in Whitefish.

The group will help prepare comments on the EPA’s remedial investigation of the Smurfit Stone Container Corp. property. The comments will state what the county would like to see happen next as cleanup and redevelopment of the industrial site are considered.

“The first round of test results should be available for us to look at in March or April,” said Peter Nielsen with the City-County Health Department. “The EPA then intends to negotiate with the two main parties to line out the next phase of work.”

That next phase marks another step in a years-long process, one that only gained momentum last November when the property’s past and present owners – including WestRock, International Paper and M2Green – agreed to test the site for contamination.

NewFields was hired to conduct the testing, which ended in December. According to the EPA, crews collected 234 soil samples and 49 groundwater samples. Roughly 33 sediment samples and 10 surface-water samples were also taken.

“The EPA has told us the next phase of work will include issues related to the floodplain – the dikes and other topics,” said Nielsen. “We wanted to send some comments to the EPA as they begin that process, to outline what we believe needs to be addressed as they asses the stability of those dikes.”

The dikes that rim the industrial site have been a lingering concern for local officials and residents who live downstream of the shuttered plant. The don’t believe the dikes – constructed of gravel and sediment – were engineered to hold back the relentless force of the shifting Clark Fork River.

Recent tours of the site strike to their concern. The berms of earth are all that separate the river from abandoned sludge ponds and waste repositories that sit in the floodplain beyond. In time, they fear the dikes will fail, and when the do, unknown levels of dioxins, furans and maganese will wash into the water.

“The dikes are heavily grazed by cattle and there’s rodent holes,” Nielsen said. “They weren’t constructed as levies and they weren’t certified as a levy. We need to get a qualified, professional engineer to outline some of these things in terms that make sense to the parties as they begin the next phase of work.”

While the county lobbies for the removal of the dikes and restoration of the floodplain at the Smurfit site, it has temporarily scuttled an opposing effort to contain the river 10 miles upstream due to lack of funding.

In a recent meeting with commissioners, Greg Robertson, director of public works with Missoula County, recalled how the Clark Fork River breached a levy near Orchard Homes in 2011. While the levy wasn’t professionally engineered, the breach showed yet again the river’s will to reclaim historic channels.

“The floodplain has been restricted by levies on both sides of the river, all the way through town,” Robertson said. “This is the area where it starts to open up. The river is behaving poorly, reacting and moving further north.”

In the 2011 flood, Robertson said, the river shifted 600 feet to the north near Tower Street and Orchard Homes.

“Because of the surrounding terrain, the river is adjusting in a way so that the main amount of energy isn’t staying in the channel,” Robertson said. “It’s finding the old riverine channels, and that’s what happened back in 2011.”

The river’s push to reclaim its natural floodplain is what concerns Nielsen and other stakeholders most about the Smurfit site. The county conducted a channel migration study several years ago, looking at the river’s historic ebb and flow. Aerial maps suggest the river will work to reclaim its floodplain.

“People are often shocked when you show them historical photos from 50 to 60 years ago,” Nielsen said. “It’s definitely moved a lot in a lot of places. Rivers occupy their floodplains over time. They don’t necessary stay where they are today.”

While the soil and water samples collected at the Smurfit site aren’t yet conclusive, past tests discovered elevated levels of dioxins, furans, arsenic and manganese. If the river were to breach the dikes and infiltrate the floodplain, stakeholders fear an environmental disaster could result.

They’re expected to ask the EPA to take the concerns into consideration as it directs future cleanup of the property.

“The river is going to go back into that floodplain someday whether you like it or not,” Nielsen said. “This will be the type of information our consultant (River Design Group) will digest. We wanted to have professional peer-to-peer comments ready to submit.”