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EPA says expedited plans for Smurfit site not related to potential cuts to agency

A July conference call between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and local stakeholders tied to the cleanup of an industrial site west of Missoula left some scratching their head, wondering why the federal agency was in a hurry to conduct the work.

Sarah Sparks, the EPA remedial project manager overseeing testing and cleanup at the former Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. pulp and paper mill in Frenchtown, said the agency’s push to complete the work had nothing to do with recent actions in Washington, D.C.

There, on Tuesday, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced agency plans to accelerate cleanup work on contaminated tracts of land across the country, as well as the nation’s Superfund sites. President Donald Trump also has proposed cutting the agency’s budget by as much as 31 percent in the next fiscal year – cuts that many fear could limit cleanup programs.

But Sparks on Wednesday said the agency’s decision to accelerate cleanup at the Smurfit location had nothing to do with either scenario.

“It has nothing to do with any of that,” she said. “It’s all based on public concern and the public meetings that we’ve held, and the public asking us to move this forward. It’s just that we’re trying to move this forward to get the land back in use.”

After recent testing, the EPA found elevated levels of PCBs in the soil and traces of manganese in one well, along with signs of oil in several production wells.

The EPA planned to release the draft of several proposed work plans this month, including a groundwater monitoring plan and a PCB removal work plan, among others. It intended to give stakeholders roughly 14 days to review the documents and submit comments.

But that tight turnaround prompted several stakeholders to dispute the timeline, suggesting it didn’t allow room to thoroughly review the technical data and offer meaningful comment.

“We’ll do our best to review it in the time frame the EPA requests,” said Katherine Haque-Hausrath, an attorney with the state’s Natural Resource Damage Program in Helena. “But we continue to assert that a two-week review doesn’t allow for meaningful coordination, and that it doesn’t meet the requirement in (federal law).”

While the expedited review may not be related to directives coming from Washington, Haque-Hausrath said, it may violate the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, or CERCLA, which requires full coordination with the trusts of the natural resource, including state and local agencies.

To fully review of the documents and coordinate with stakeholders, Haque-Hausrath said her department would need a month. Potential cuts to the EPA and its cleanup programs also remain a concern.

“We believe a good cleanup should be a high priority for the EPA,” Haque-Hausrath said. “It’s of interest to my office, as a representative of the governor as the trustee of the natural resource. Restoration is the remedy, and we’d like to see as good a remedy as possible.”

During a conference call held on July 11, Sparks told stakeholders the agency needed to “move very quickly” if it hoped to begin cleanup at the abandoned site this year.

While the Frenchtown site has not yet been designated as a Superfund location, it’s up for consideration – a move its owners M2Green Redevelopment have been fighting for several years.

“If we get the studies completed by 2018, we’d move it to the record of decision process sometime in 2018 or 2019,” Sparks said. “I believe we made the decision that we’re trying to stay on that timeline.”