Smurfit environmental assessment delayed another year by botched fish samples

Last year, FWP employees caught about 150 rainbow trout and northern pike above and below the Frenchtown mill site and prepared them using the protocol prescribed by the EPA. However, they deviated slightly from the established procedure. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

The Environmental Protection Agency won’t use samples from fish collected around the Smurfit-Stone mill site last summer, so it could be at least another year before risks to human health and the environment are known.

After six months of indecision, EPA project manager Allie Archer told the Smurfit-Stone Community Advisory Group Thursday night that she will not use fish samples collected from the Clark Fork River and its tributaries last summer. Those samples, still stored in a Denver freezer, were intended to show whether chemicals – dioxins, furans and polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs – from the mill’s holding ponds have contaminated fish.

“There were some deviations from the sampling plan, so we cannot use (the fish samples) in our risk assessments,” Archer said. “We are going to collect that same data set in the coming year, which I know can be frustrating to hear that we’re reproducing the same data.”

Last year, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks employees caught about 150 rainbow trout and northern pike above and below the mill site and prepared them using the protocol prescribed by the EPA. However, they deviated slightly from the established procedure.

The EPA was supposed to provide FWP with special reagent water for rinsing the samples, but FWP never received it. So technicians used deionized water, as allowed in other EPA sampling regimens.

FWP used the same procedure in 2013 when tests first detected dioxins and PCBs in fish just downstream from the mill site. Those discoveries prompted consumption advisories for Clark Fork River fish.

Because the EPA protocol wasn’t followed exactly in 2018, NewFields, a representative of the potentially responsible parties, objected in November to processing the samples. The EPA takes input from NewFields because the potentially responsible parties are supposed to pay for all the assessment and cleanup work. The PRPs include West Rock, International Paper and M2Green.

“We were very optimistic that we could go forward with the deviations, and then we got the PRPs comments,” Archer said. “We’ve asked the PRPs to collect the same data this year.”

The PRPs are required to say whether they’ll do the work by next week. If they don’t do the work, the EPA will.

When asked who would ensure the quality of the PRPs’ sampling, Keith Large of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality had no answer, saying they needed to get the PRPs’ answer first.

The EPA is attempting to determine whether chemicals – dioxins, furans and polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs – from the mill’s holding ponds have contaminated fish. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

EPA supervisor Joe Vranka said a main reason the fish samples won’t be used is the EPA couldn’t defend the data in court, if needed, because of the deviations. In some Superfund cases, the EPA must take PRPs to court to force them to pay.

“Even if the fish samples came out with high dioxins, then the PRPs have a leg up and can say the data isn’t any good,” Vranka said.

FWP fisheries biologist David Schmetterling said the small deviations wouldn’t affect the quality of the data. But waiting too long could.

With time, fish that were potentially affected by last year’s flooding or previous contamination leaks will die. Rainbow trout live about five years. Also, the samples now in the freezer will degrade in a few more months.

In the meantime, without new data, the consumption advisory remains in effect, and fishermen at the meeting expressed frustration.

“This is the work we wanted to do in 2014. The longer we wait, it’s going to benefit the PRPs,” Schmetterling said.

Archer said she’d allow the community to weigh in on what should happen with the 2018 samples.

Even though the EPA won’t use the data, the agency could process the samples, if persuaded. But testing for dioxins and PCBs is expensive, around $140,000 to $150,000, Large said.

“We’re not sure we can cost-recover from the PRPs. This is taxpayers’ dollars. We probably wouldn’t get it back. We don’t know for sure. We don’t think taxpayers need to be paying for that, but we’re still having the discussion, we still want everybody’s comments. No decision has been made yet,” Large said.

The advisory committee is considering asking the EPA to process the samples to provide an idea of what contaminants might exist in fish. Schmetterling said the samples might show that sampling needs to extend farther downstream than St. Regis, and that would be good to know before sampling starts this year.

Archer said a decision on the samples would be made on March 22.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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