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State plan seeks to find source, extent of highly toxic PCB at Smurfit-Stone site

The Smurfit-Stone pulp mill produced bleached pulp for 39 years and the site contains more than a million tons of bleached-pulp waste, which is a source of dioxins and furans. Groundwater and soil samples taken at the site contain dioxins and furans. (Missoula County photo)

The state of Montana wants to probe deeper into the spread of toxic chemicals from the Smurfit-Stone mill site and wants to know if Montanans have any other ideas of what scientists might look for.

During the monthly Frenchtown Smurfit-Stone Community Advisory Group meeting last week, Brian Bartkowiak, environmental science specialist with the Montana Natural Resource Damage Program, and Jamie Holmes, consulting scientist and vice president of Abt Associates, summarized the state’s assessment plan for Smurfit-Stone Frenchtown Mill Site.

The Montana Natural Resource Damage Program published the plan on Sept. 26 and is taking public comment until Nov. 26.

Bartkowiak clarified the difference between what the state wants to do –restoration – and the work the Environmental Protection Agency and project manager Allie Archer have been doing for more than five years to prepare for remediation. Both remediation and restoration are part of the Superfund process.

But the EPA does sampling to figure out the site’s risk to human health and the environment and then tries to reduce the risk through remediation cleanup. The state does more extensive investigations to find how much more work needs to be done to restore or replace any public land and water that was polluted, damaged or “injured.”

That normally affects an area larger than just the site.

“That’s the reason we pick on Allie and Will so much in these meetings: We really want to see the cleanup (done thoroughly) so there’s less injury and less loss. We want to make sure all current site risks are assessed,” Bartkowiak said.

Last year, after two years of limited and somewhat bumbled fish sampling, Archer said the EPA had decided it didn’t need any additional fish data, even though the tissue results showed rainbow trout and northern pike are contaminated with dioxins and PCBs as far downstream as St. Regis. As a result, some advisory group members questioned why more sampling wouldn’t be carried out.

But that’s one of the things the state assessment plan intends to do, Holmes said.

“We only need to collect additional data where they’ve identified data gaps,” Holmes said. “In this case, the data gap is the fate and transport of potential dioxins and furans generated at the site.”

The industrial site has been shuttered for years. The state of Montana wants to probe deeper into the spread of toxic chemicals from the Smurfit-Stone mill site and wants to know if Montanans have any other ideas of what scientists might look for. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

The Smurfit-Stone pulp mill produced bleached pulp for 39 years and the site contains more than a million tons of bleached-pulp waste, which is a source of dioxins and furans. Groundwater and soil samples taken at the site contain dioxins and furans.

Dioxins, furans and dioxin-like PCBs often occur together, the byproduct of pulp, paper or pesticide manufacturing, and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system and cancer in people, fish and wildlife.

“We know that dioxins and furans in fish downstream of the site increase, as do dioxin-like PCBs. But there are numerous data gaps that don’t allow the trustees to tie all this information together. And it’s unclear whether this site is the source of those in the fish,” Holmes said.

There are 209 different kinds of PCBs, or congeners, which the U.S. banned in 1978 after their toxicity and environmental longevity were discovered. Montsanto was the only U.S. manufacturer and produced a number of PCBs under the trade name Aroclor for almost 50 years.

Holmes said the primary PCB found in the EPA fish samples was PCB 126, the most toxic of the 209 congeners. That means it didn’t come from the electrical transformers on the Smurfit site, which used Aroclor. But the site has other sources of PCB, Holmes said.

Advisory group member Larry Weeks questioned why the EPA had claimed PCBs weren’t coming from the mill site. Holmes said it was because the EPA assessment was too limited.

“They had done very few analyses. They’ve looked at Aroclors, but they have not done very many analyses of the individual PCB congeners,” Holmes said. “They haven’t been sampling them at the site because there was no reason to think that the site would be a source of them. But they do seem to be in the soils, so we still have a data gap to try to address.”

In addition to sampling fish tissue at more sites downstream on the Clark Fork River, the assessment plan would sample river and groundwater using passive sampling devices that can detect dioxins – which don’t mix well with water – better than a one-time grab sample. It would also collect core samples of sediment at the bottom of deep pools at various points along the Clark Fork River to see if pulp mill toxins settled there.

Finally, the Montana Osprey Project, headed by University of Montana ecologist Erik Greene, would be hired to see if dioxins are making their way up the food chain from fish to predators like osprey.

The trustees are in the process of formalizing an agreement to carry out the proposed assessment plan, Bartkowiak said. Trustees are entities that manage public land that was potentially injured. That includes the state, two tribes, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We’re here to stay informed of site activities and keep up with the process,” Bartkowiak said.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.