Residents push Missoula County, EPA for cancer study, osprey testing near former Smurfit site

Discarded barrels litter the former Smurfit Stone Container Corp. mill site near Frenchtown in this file photo. Area residents are pushing to expand a study that suggests they have a higher risk of certain cancers. They also want a wider sampling of osprey to fully gauge contaminants in the Clark Fork River. (Photo courtesy of Missoula County)

Area residents want a few more health-related studies around the former Smurfit Stone Mill site while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s investigation of contamination drags out.

The Smurfit Stone Mill Site Community Advisory Group is preparing to send a letter asking the Missoula County Health Department to expand a study that suggests residents around the former mill might have a higher risk of certain cancers.

Heather Zimmerman of the Montana Central Tumor Registry conducted a survey of current residents around the mill site and found a higher than expected incidence of cancer in young people compared to the rest of Missoula County. But the rate wasn’t higher than that found across the state.

For people younger than 40, the Frenchtown region had 40 cancer cases, 14 more than expected. But Montana state epidemiologist Connie Garrett said the difference is not statistically significant.

Former Frenchtown resident Chany Roen Ockert requested the initial survey after being diagnosed with cancer and then learning that four of her Frenchtown High School classmates also had cancer. None of them were included in the survey.

Ockert and the advisory group wonder if the survey was too limited to identify a cancer cluster. They want the study to include former Frenchtown residents younger than 40 who now live outside the area, and the study area should be expanded because sulfur dioxide emissions could drift as far as Arlee, which also has a high cancer incidence.

They also question the practice of not reporting cases of cancer in rural zipcode areas if less than five exist, and they want all forms of cancer to be reported, not just leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and lung cancer.

“In order to identify a cancer cluster associated with environmental contamination, more data is needed,” the letter said. “Further studies could include the possible effects of exposure to sulfur dioxide, PCB’s, dioxins and other contaminants associated with pulp and paper mills in the Frenchtown, Arlee and Missoula areas.”

The one snag is how to collect health information from nonresidents without violating laws protecting medical privacy, Garrett said.

“I suggested that (Ockert) work with the university because they would know how to set up a double-blind study to get that information,” Garrett said.

The old mill remains shuttered outside of Frenchtown and just west of Missoula. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

The second letter will request money from the EPA to fund an osprey study that could detect more contamination in the Clark Fork River.

In September, University of Montana ecologist Erick Greene told the advisory group how osprey can be better indicators of contamination than fish, because as predators, they’re at the top of the food chain. While one fish might not contain enough toxins to allow for detection, one osprey eats hundreds of fish so the chemicals build up to a detectable level.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has worked with the EPA to collect trout for tissue samples, but fish biologist David Schmetterling said in September that fish should be just the beginning of assessing the extent of contamination.

For more than a decade, Greene has used osprey blood samples to detect mining pollution and he already has large amounts of data showing mercury contamination along the Clark Fork.

He offered to set up a project to sample birds above and below the Smurfit site to better analyze the mercury problem in the river and to look at dioxins, furans and PCB’s, which are the main contaminants at the site. But processing Smurfit-type toxins costs about $1,000 per sample, money Greene doesn’t have.

The advisory group is asking the EPA for about $10,000 to conduct the study. But they may have another funding source: the 2016 Columbia River Restoration Act.

EPA hydrologist Peter Brumm said the act amended the 1972 Clean Water Act in order to clean up “toxics” – newer chemicals such as pharmaceuticals, PCB’s or pesticides not identified in 1972 – in the Columbia River basin.

A 2002 study found 92 pollutants in Columbia River fish. The Clark Fork River is part of the Columbia River system.

The restoration act appropriates up to $30 million for cleanup, monitoring and education, but after 2016, Congress has done little to support the act.

“Congress didn’t appropriate any money for us to do anything with it until 2019. This is the first year we have money,” Brumm said. “We have $1 million this year to award to grants.”

The catch is the EPA doesn’t want to use it to fund projects that already get Superfund money. But Greene’s project may still qualify because it would provide more data for the Clark Fork River.

Clark Fork Coalition attorney Andrew Gorder said Greene was looking into the Columbia River EPA grant, but with more people and organizations supporting the effort, such as the advisory group sending the letter, the more attention the EPA might give it.