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Smurfit: Confusing EPA data dump delays update of fish consumption advisory

The advisory issued in 2013 warns people not to eat any pike and limit trout to four meals a month on the Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers below Missoula. That’s to avoid ingesting too many dioxins or furans that likely leach out from the mill site. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

An unorganized jumble of data from the Environmental Protection Agency has slowed state efforts to evaluate the need for stricter fish consumption advisories.

Trevor Selch, Fish, Wildlife & Parks fisheries pollution biologist, told the Frenchtown Smurfit Stone Community Advisory Group this week that he still isn’t able to update the Clark Fork River fish consumption advisory, even though the EPA finally released toxin data from fish collected above and below the Smurfit-Stone Mill site.

The advisory issued in 2013 warns people not to eat any pike and limit trout to four meals a month on the Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers below Missoula. That’s to avoid ingesting too many dioxins or furans that likely leach out from the mill site.

Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.

But the EPA data provided last month is difficult to process, because the EPA sometimes uses different units of measurement, different detection limits and some of the values aren’t lining up, Selch said. Part of the problem is the EPA doesn’t provide the data in a commonly used spreadsheet like Excel.

“The EPA uses this database – it’s called an Electronic Data Deliverable – and it comes through in what we consider an unusable format where you have to do all this data manipulation and copy and paste cells to put them where they should be, in our opinion,” Selch told the Missoula Current after the meeting. “It would take me an insurmountable amount of time to do this myself.”

All the data are being processed by a contractor that works for the state Natural Resource Damage Program, a branch of the Department of Justice that assesses damage to state natural resources and sues the responsible parties to get money for restoration.

The contractor also has to match the pollutants in the fish tissue with the length measurements of each fish. But the length data is in a different file, which the EPA said it provided in March and posted to the EPA website. But Selch said the data contractor didn’t get it.

“We definitely didn’t have it a long time ago,” Selch said.

Selch told the Missoula Current he hopes the contractor can convert the data to a useable spreadsheet and assess it in time to allow him to tell the Community Advisory Group next month if he’s going to change the consumption advisory.

As long as people haven’t eaten more than the advised four trout per month, Selch doesn’t think they’ll be in danger because advisories are already somewhat conservative. Also, the limit is intended to be good over a lifetime. If someone eats eight trout one month but none the next, that is still in line with the advisory.

But based on the raw EPA numbers of dioxins, furans and dioxin-like PCB’s in fish tissue that he first saw last month, Selch anticipates he may need to have people refrain from eating any trout. One way or another, he’d been hoping to make that call a lot sooner but had to deal with EPA delays starting in 2014.

“When Dave Schmetterling and I collected data in 2013, we sampled at only one site below Frenchtown and we made a real conservative advisory,” Selch told the Current. “We finally collected fish in 2018, and then of course, we didn’t get any results until now. It’s been frustrating that there’s been a seven-year gap waiting for more definitive information.”

Selch and Schmetterling, another FWP fisheries biologist, would like to see at least one more year of sampling to fill in the data gaps brought to light in the past two years’ of data.

The EPA almost didn’t use the fish tissue collected in 2018 because the potentially responsible parties – International Paper Company and WestRock CP LLC, the companies that now own the land and will have to pay for cleanup – objected to some of FWP’s deviations in EPA protocol.

A second round of sampling was scheduled for 2019, delaying the results. Eventually, the EPA agreed to process the 2018 tissue too, after the Community Advisory Group pushed back.

Now it turns out the 2019 samples contain higher concentrations of pollutants than the 2018 samples did, which doesn’t go in the favor of the potentially responsible parties. EPA project manager Allie Archer said the 2019 results would carry more weight in the upcoming human-health risk assessment.

Schmetterling told the Community Advisory Group that this result offset some of their frustration.

“The gist is it’s all going to be used and it’s even more important that we sampled again because the 2019 data will be weighted more,” Schmetterling said. “Because we did see a difference between years.”

Archer has said the human health risk assessment, scheduled for completion next summer, is supposed to define the geographical extent of contamination.

But the 2019 data showed some of the highest concentrations in fish as far downstream as St. Regis. Selch and Schmetterling think the contamination could extend even farther. So next summer, they want to sample more sites downstream and maybe some upstream to get more of a baseline.

That would mean the risk assessment wouldn’t be complete next summer. And maybe it shouldn’t be because it could exclude some areas from remediation.

“That’s something we’ll have to talk about with the EPA,” Selch said.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.