Laura Lundquist

A year after the state published a pollutant assessment plan that takes a deeper look at the Smurfit-Stone mill site, it’s now received a grant to carry out some of the work.

On Thursday night, Montana Trout Unlimited executive director David Brooks told the Frenchtown Smurfit-Stone Community Advisory Group that Trout Unlimited received a Columbia River Basin Restoration Funding Assistance Program grant worth more than $304,000 that will allow for additional water and fish tissue sampling in the Clark Fork River and beyond. Sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the federal payout is $221,000 and requires a match of $82,500. 

Several organizations contributed to the effort, including Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Department of Environmental Quality, Natural Resources Damages Program, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the Clark Fork Coalition. Brooks said Trout Unlimited and the Clark Fork Coalition will pay some of the match, but in-kind staff work will account for most of the total.

“We found out last week that we were successful,” Brooks said. “We’ll be moving forward with that work, planning it over the winter and then doing both the sampling of water and fish next summer.”

Sampling fish for contaminants that could possibly have come from pulp operations at the Smurfit Stone site – dioxins, furans and PCB’s - has been very limited and somewhat contentious. 

The EPA balked at using samples from the first year, 2018, because EPA protocol wasn’t followed exactly, and then the agency held the frozen samples until it was almost too late. The debate then delayed sampling in 2019 so technicians caught fewer fish than planned. The EPA finally agreed to use both sets of data but not without pressure from the Community Advisory Group.

The data showed that rainbow trout and Northern pike in the Clark Fork River carried enough toxins that FWP had to issue a new fish consumption advisory. A 2013 advisory cautioned people to avoid eating pike from the river below Missoula and limit trout to four meals a month. The 2019 advisory warned people to avoid all pike and rainbow trout throughout the Clark Fork River below Bonner.

But EPA project manager Allie Archer said it wouldn’t affect the Smurfit cleanup because there was no proof the toxins came from the mill site. Other mill sites along the Bitterroot River could have contributed. She also said the EPA wouldn’t do more tissue sampling because it wasn't related to the cleanup.

The Natural Resource Damage Program and FWP wanted to know what was going on and how much of the river was affected. The NRD put a sampling plan together to assess the site, fish and even osprey. But neither agency had money for more sampling.

smurfit dump

“With the very limited sampling we’ve done in the Clark Fork, we’ve found elevated levels of these contaminants that prompted a fish consumption advisory placed on the Clark Fork from the Blackfoot to the Flathead. That was out of an abundance of caution because we don’t have more data to limit the geographic scope of that,” said FWP fisheries biologist David Schmetterling. “The hope is that we’re going to improve the resolution and make changes to the advisory based on that.”

Using the grant money, sampling for fish, namely rainbow trout, will occur at 17 sites, along with water sampling using a passive sampler. Instead of using grab samples that only reflect a moment in time, passive samplers collect water and any toxins continuously over a long period, at least 30 days. They’re like fish that remain stationary, Schmetterling said, so scientists can better identify problem spots.
The 17 sample sites aren’t limited to the Clark Fork River, said NRD environmental science specialist Brian Bartkowiak.

“The scale of this study is quite big – it's basically Butte to Noxon and the Flathead River. So, it’s not specific to the Smurfit site,” Bartkowiak said. “It’s looking at dioxins, furans, PCB’s and mercury in the whole Columbia River basin. And identifying sources.”
A Community Advisory Group member asked Archer if the EPA would accept the data the state collected. Archer was noncommittal.

“We will look at the results and see if there’s new information that would lead us to relook at our investigations to date,” Archer said. “We do have elevated exposures for certain receptors, meaning fish in the river. Can we tie those chemicals back to the site?”

Bartkowiak was pleased to get the Columbia Basin grant. But he learned Thursday afternoon that he’d not been able to get a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant to be able to do an NRD assessment of the Smurfit site. 

In April, the Biden Administration introduced its America the Beautiful Challenge, a $1 billion program to advance the goal of conserving 30% of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation oversees the program and got 527 applications for its first round.

Bartkowiak said there was so much competition that the grant he could’ve gotten would have funded only 10% of the project. He’ll try the next round in the spring.

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