Clark Fork Coalition: Landowner, EPA dragging feet on millsite testing, cleanup

Before the mill was built, several side channels and oxbows crisscrossed the floodplain between large stands of cottonwood trees on the north side of the Clark Fork River. Now it is largely denuded and carved into wastewater ponds. (File photo)

With possible spring floods just around the corner, some are complaining that nothing has been done to keep chemical waste at the former Smurfit-Stone Mill site from contaminating the Clark Fork River again.

Andrew Gorder of the Clark Fork Coalition told the Smurfit-Stone Community Advisory Group Thursday night that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Smurfit property owners are dragging their feet through the process of identifying the risks posed by waste dumps and sludge ponds on the mill site.

If they can drag it out long enough, some of the chemicals will start to degrade. That helps as years pass, but it ignores the threat of a crisis, such as another flood, occurring before they degrade.

“The pace at which we’re moving, we kind of see this as a slow walk that the potentially responsible parties are putting us through. They seem to resist at every step of the way in an effort to slow things down to a crawl,” Gorder said. “If there’s an inadequate characterization of the contamination at the site, that creates a faulty picture of the risks and will lead to an inadequate remedy.”

Ten years have passed since Smurfit-Stone shuttered the mill, and almost a year has gone by since the Clark Fork River flooded, raising concerns about toxic chemicals being swept downstream, especially if the berm along the river failed.

It took the intervention of U.S. senators, county commissioners and citizens before the EPA did emergency testing to assess the berm and possible contamination of the river water below the site, Gorder said. Then the EPA said no dioxins were found so all was well, even though tests found higher levels of arsenic and other toxic elements.

“We know that the berm was never constructed as a means of flood control,” Gorder said. “It’s a temporary solution to a permanent problem.”

Allie Archer, EPA remedial project manager, said she is still trying to catch up after a month-long government shutdown, which put many EPA employees behind the curve. Archer took over as project manager at the beginning of the year, following the retirement of Sara Sparks.

The CAG is still waiting on results from fish sampling conducted last summer, but all of the samples remain in a freezer at a Denver laboratory. They’re untested because some of the samples weren’t collected strictly according to protocol. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks fisheries biologist David Schmetterling has said the deviations probably wouldn’t diminish the data.

Gorder said the potentially responsible parties, who gathered some of the fish themselves, were pushing back by raising questions about the deviation in protocol. Some have suggested the sampling needs to be redone this year.

Archer said she decided to wait until a March 7 meeting to decide whether to move forward with processing the fish.

“EPA won’t be making a decision until we hear from everyone. If I hadn’t been off in January, maybe it wouldn’t be put off until March,” Archer said. “We are preparing the report, and I want to feel comfortable with the data.”

Like the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Gorder said the Clark Fork Coalition wants a complete cleanup of the site. That’s the best way for redevelopment of possible parks and housing to be realized.

“I think it’s hard for the CAG or other stakeholders to feel like their voice is being heard when we have to wait so long,” Gorder said. “We’re not giving up on the process. We’re going to continue to do what we can to help and move things forward in the right direction.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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