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EPA expects Smurfit soil and water test results by March

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Testing results taken late last year at the former Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. pulp and paper mill should be released in March. (Photo courtesy of the Clark Fork Coalition)

By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

FRENCHTOWN – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to publish the results from soil and water samples collected at the former Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. pulp and paper mill this March.

In the meantime, the Missoula City-County Health Department is awaiting a District Court ruling on whether the Montana Department of Environmental Quality violated administrative rules when it transferred a wastewater discharge permit to the site’s new owner, M2Green.

That decision could come this month, and with sampling results expected shortly after, the next few months could give the defunct property direction for the first time in years.

“If there’s contamination on the site, we’ll know where it is, what it’s comprised of and what kind of concentrations might be present,” said Robert Moler, community involvement coordinator with EPA Montana. “That’ll help influence what kind of cleanup takes place.”

NewFields, an environmental consulting firm partially based in Missoula, conducted tests across the 3,200-acre site in November and December. Crews collected 234 soil samples and 49 groundwater samples. Roughly 33 sediment samples and 10 surface-water samples were also taken.

Moler said the EPA and the Montana DEQ oversaw the sampling.

“That was just phase one,” Moler said. “We’re really interested in knowing what those results will be.”

In late November, the past and present owners of the former Smurfit property – including WestRock, International Paper and M2Green – agreed to test the site for contamination and reimburse the EPA $600,000 for past costs.

The agency’s initial site evaluation found several contaminants of concern, including dioxins, furans, arsenic and manganese. Those watching the latest round of testing believe additional sampling will be needed, though they’re pleased to see the process underway.

“I’m glad they’ve started sampling – that’s absolutely a positive step,” said Chris Brick, science director at the Clark Fork Coalition. “The sooner we can figure out what’s there, the sooner we can figure out what needs to be done to clean it up.”

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Dikes separate the Clark Fork River from its historic floodplain, but have been breached in high water years, raising the risk of downstream contamination. (Photo courtesy of Clark Fork Coalition)

Late last year, a group of stakeholders viewed the property from a distant bluff overlooking the Clark Fork River and envisioned its potential. A portion of the industrial site rests with the river’s floodplain, and local experts fear that a high water year could wash contaminants downriver.

Together, the Clark Fork Coalition, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the West Valley Community Council – along with the City-County Health Department – plan to unify their efforts to see portions of the property restored.

Their long-term vision includes reuniting the river with its floodplain and restoring the river’s natural channel to protect aquatic species and downstream users.

“All of those entities are interested in seeing this move forward, not only with a remediation solution but a restoration solution that reclaims some of the floodplain from what’s now wastewater ponds,” Brick said. “By removing the dikes on both the exterior and interior portions of the property, that floodplain could be reclaimed for a number of different benefits.”

The sludge ponds that sit behind the dikes cover roughly 140 acres, and they remain a concern. Peter Nielsen with the City-County Health Department said new data suggests that water levels within the property are rising.

“It appears from the data we’ve seen so far that groundwater levels in that area have come up,” Nielsen said. “They were pumping so much water when they were running the mill, so the water has rebounded in that area. That’s heightened our concern, and we remain concerned about the stability of the dikes.”

Nielsen said stakeholders will continue to provide comment to the EPA as the agency moves through the cleanup process. Ray Stillwell, president of Green Investment Group, couldn’t be reached for comment.