EPA: Impacts of high water on Smurfit berms reveal “no imminent threat”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency dispatched a member of its emergency response team to Missoula this week to analyze a berm at the shuttered Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. pulp and paper mill west of the city.

Marty McComb, the federal on-scene coordinator with EPA, said his arrival was a precautionary move and an initial review of the earthen berm revealed no sign of failure or leakage.

“There is no imminent threat that we can see,” McComb said Friday. “But I think we can all agree that we just want to be prepared if something does happen.”

The stability of the berm separating the Clark Fork River from the industrial site and its lingering contaminants has been a concern for years. As recently as March, Missoula County commissioners raised concerns that floodwaters could erode more than 50 years of sludge, ash and industrial waste if the river penetrated the dike.

Commissioners also accused the EPA of failing to address the human and ecological health concerns associated with the site’s contaminants in an ongoing risk assessment being conducted by the federal agency.

The EPA’s inspection of the berms is taking place in addition to the site’s other concerns, according to Ellen Leahy, director of the City-County Health Department.

“This is not in lieu of the very hard assessment work that’s to be done on that site, or the remediation decision that’s yet to come,” she said. “The site in our opinion is not yet very well characterized.”

Marty McComb, on-scene coordinator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (Missoula Current)

While McComb said the inspection of the berm found no imminent threat of failure, his team is working to complete other tasks while on site, including a contingency plan if something did occur and a long-term monitoring plan.

The EPA is also prioritizing different areas of the site, which would inform any future response, McComb said.

“There was a lot of activity going on out there,” said McComb. “We’re looking at the operations that went on, some of the data, and in the unlikely event something happens out there, either now or in the future, we know our first steps as to what to protect.”

The county believes dumps at the site were used to dispose of all forms of industrial waste from the mill between 1957 and 1993. That included the disposal of sludge and ash until 2010, when the mill shut down.

The dumps cover 160 acres and were never licensed by the state, the county has said. A small portion of the dumps were capped with 18 inches of soil in 1993 without further investigation, raising questions as to what lies beneath.

“Everyone would agree there’s contaminants out there,” said McComb. “They’re trying to find out with the sampling what those levels are and how much there is out there. I’m not seeing any breaches where you can actively see anything going into the river.”

McComb added the results of a metals analysis taken from the site will likely come in early next week. The results from a dioxin test will take a little longer, he added.