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Missoula County backs state plan to assess pollutants at Smurfit site

The shuttered Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. mill site in Frenchtown. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

Missoula County is placing its support behind a proposed plan by the state’s Natural Resources Damage Program that would fully characterize the environmental impacts of pollutants seeping from the shuttered Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. mill site in Frenchtown.

The proposed Assessment Plan, released last month, suggests that past studies of the industrial site have relied upon “grab samples” taken from surface water to evaluate the potential entry of pollutants into the environment. The plan contends that such small samples “may not be sufficient to adequately asses” the level and reach of contamination.

Authored by Abt Associates Inc. on behalf of the Montana Natural Resources Damage Program, the Assessment Plan looks to take past studies further by conducting deep core samples, taking tissue samples from fish and the eggs of osprey along the river, and other methods to measure and locate pollutant levels.

“Missoula County has closely followed the Environmental Protection Agency’s risk-based process toward remediation and participated throughout this process,” the county wrote in a letter of support to the state. “We remain concerned that the current site characterization minimizes site impacts. Current mischaracterization will limit redevelopment and reduce the benefits of natural resources.”

Missoula County last week expressed concern that recently released federal reports relating to the site include insufficient sampling, which could lead to less cleanup in the future.

To plug the gaps in EPA sampling, the Montana Resources Damage Program is proposing four additional studies to determine how far downstream contaminants have spread in the Clark Fork River and surrounding environment.

“It’s an effort to collect more data that will be pretty important to better understand the connection between the site and the river and sedimentation downstream,” county hydrologist Elena Evans said on Wednesday.

One of the waste ponds at the shuttered mill. (Missoula County photo)

The sludge and wastewater generated when the site was manufacturing bleached pulp was dumped in a series of unlined basins and ponds. The buried contamination hasn’t been well-characterized, but the basins are likely contaminated with dioxins, furans and PCBs, along with other hazardous substances.

The seepage of contaminated groundwater into the Clark Fork River through upwelling or springs may be an ongoing source of pollution into the environment, the state contends.

“To date, investigations of the site have not included a detailed analysis of the waste in the sludge ponds or other solid waste ponds,” the Assessment Plan suggests.

To understand the reach of such contaminants into the environment, the plan looks to collect core samples, including one reach taken upstream of the mill and three reaches taken below the mill. It also looks to analyze whole individual fish rather than fillets, saying that whole fish “better represent” potential exposure.

The plan will also turn to osprey eggs for analysis. Researchers at the Raptor View Research Institute and the University of Montana have monitored dozens of osprey nests along the Clark Fork River for over 12 years.

That previous research has focused on heavy metals in nestling blood and feathers take from nests along the river. Now, however, the state intends to work with the Montana Osprey Project to evaluate dioxins, furans and PCBs in osprey eggs, as well as nestling tissue collected from riverside nests.

“The goal of the study is to determine whether ospreys along the Clark Fork River near and downstream of Frenchtown are exposed to (pollutants),” the plan reads. “Osprey are a sentinel species for contaminant monitoring in part because they typically have multiple eggs in a clutch, and the removal of one egg for analysis does not adversely affect reproduction.”

Missoula County, which has been critical of what it has described as inadequate sampling by the EPA, placed its support this week behind the study proposed by the Montana Natural Resource Damage Program.

“The Natural Resource Damage Program identifies additional pathways for contamination and identifies ways to further identify offsite contamination,” the county said. “The … Assessment Plan is an important step toward improved characterization and a necessary step for community acceptance.”

Missoula County clashes with EPA over importance of Smurfit sampling