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State to require more water, fish sampling near Smurfit Stone mill site

The abandoned Smurfit Stone mill site. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

After the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency refused to do more sampling, the state of Montana will propose conducting four more studies to better assess pollution from the Smurfit Stone mill site.

Brian Bartkowiak, environmental science specialist with the Montana Natural Resource Damage Program, told Missoula County commissioners this week that the state needs more soil, water and fish tissue samples to know how badly the Smurfit Stone pulp mill polluted the land and water west of Missoula.

Within the next few weeks, the Damage Program will release an assessment plan outlining how managers will evaluate the extent of the pollution on and around the Smurfit site, and how they will decide the cost of the damages the mill site landowners – the “potentially responsible parties” or PRP’s – are responsible for.

The assessment plan will also propose four additional studies to fill in data gaps left by the EPA.

The first study would use sediment cores collected at the bottom of deep pools at various points down the Clark Fork River to see if pulp mill toxins settled there. For the second, sampling devices will be positioned at various locations in the river or shallow groundwater aquifers to accumulate any toxins for an extended period of months. In previous sampling efforts, technicians just scooped grab-samples of water.

Bartkowiak said toxins such as dioxins are very hard to find with single grab-samples because they’re hydrophobic – they don’t mix in with water. So one scoop may miss them.

“But if you find them, they are toxic at very low concentrations,” Bartkowiak said.

The third study would augment Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ fish tissue sampling by sampling more fish species and at more locations along the Clark Fork River. Finally, University of Montana ecologist Erick Greene would be asked to sample the blood of osprey along the river to help determine how far dioxins have spread into the food web.

Over the past two years, the Frenchtown Smurfit Stone Community Advisory Group has asked the EPA to conduct most of these studies, worried that the lack of sediment samples and minimal fish tissue results didn’t tell the whole story. FWP expanded its fish consumption advisory warning against eating trout from the Clark Fork River in December, but more data is needed to know how far downstream that extends.

But the EPA has refused to do more studies after the last fish tissue was collected in 2019. EPA project manager Allie Archer has repeatedly said the agency has enough information to complete its risk assessment of the site. Plus, the PRP’s have consistently pushed back against paying for more studies.

The EPA’s delays and refusals over the past five years or so have frustrated the Community Advisory Group, so several members were relieved to hear that the state intends to require more sampling.

Clark Fork Coalition Science Director John DeArment said it was frustrating that the state had to step in. The EPA should take a more aggressive view of its own authority and do a better job, DeArment said.

“Think of the big questions you should ask about this site. Is the berm adequate for protecting this site? Did the dioxin contaminate the fish or are the fish safe to eat? Is the science credible? But none of that is part of the (EPA) study,” DeArment said.

“The EPA still isn’t planning to do any more. FWP had to do the initial fish tissue analysis over the protests of the PRP’s. The county had to do the berm study and the channel migration study. The Clark Fork Coalition and the county went together to hire a company to review the risk assessments to see if they were credible and the answer was a resounding ‘No.’ It’s just crazy.”

Mary Price of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes said the four studies would provide a better understanding of all the pathways that toxins use to enter the Clark Fork environment.

“The public and the trustees have long brought this to EPA’s attention. The tribes are very concerned about human health given the fish consumption advisories out there,” Price said. “The NRDA did the heavy lifting on this plan. We think it’s a solid plan and we’re looking forward to seeing what the public thinks of it.”

Under the Superfund act, the EPA and state environmental quality departments are required to assess polluted sites and determine what work needs to be done to rid the site of contaminants. But in situations where air, groundwater and surface water are affected, contamination can spread beyond the confines of the site itself.

That likely occurred with the Smurfit site. The Clark Fork River flows past the site, separated from contaminated ground by only an earthen berm. Fish – trout and Northern pike – sampled near and downstream from the site were found to contain toxins – dioxins and furans – that are associated with wood pulp production. In addition, some groundwater samples collected beneath the site contained significant levels of the same toxins and associated chemical elements.

The state, along with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are all trustees, that is property owners who are affected by the pulp mill pollution and who must make decisions in the best interest of the people.

So the state – in this case, the Natural Resource Damage Program – can require cleanup of areas beyond the site if it can determine that the industry – the pulp mill in this case – caused “injury” to the area. The goal of the program is to, as much as possible, restore polluted areas of the state to a pre-pollution baseline.

Bartkowiak said the Damage Program already did a preassessment screening of the Smurfit area in 2018, so he knows the PRP’s will be responsible for more than just cleaning up the Smurfit site.

“We hope to work with the PRP’s to implement the plan. I don’t have any guess about how willing they will be to cooperate,” Bartkowiak said. “They will most likely object that there has been no injuries to natural resources from the site. The logical argument that we can make is we will ask them nicely to collect this data to demonstrate that fact.”

Once the assessment plan is released, the public will have 30 days to comment. After that, the Damage Program can charge the PRP’s for any work it does. So it pays the PRP’s to work with the Damage Program on the plan, Bartkowiak said.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.