Locals, agencies debate Smurfit cleanup in Helena
(Missoula Current) After getting a crash course on the Smurfit Stone mill site cleanup process, some state legislators were just as frustrated with slow progress as some locals are.
On Monday, the Legislative Environmental Quality Council spent the day listening to several representatives of agencies, tribes, citizens groups and former workers testify on the contamination on the former pulp mill site and what they think the cleanup should do.
The meeting was part of an interim study required by House Joint Resolution 18, looking into the sampling work that’s been overseen since 2015 by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“A lot of people think that the EPA is going to be what determines the future of this site, what the timeline’s going to be and what the outcome will be. While that’s partially true, our state agencies have an important role to play in the Superfund process, as does the governor’s office,” said Rep. Jonathan Karlen, D-Missoula, sponsor of HJ 18. “So it’s the job of this body, overseeing the state agencies, that we make sure that the state agencies are advocating for an outcome that we feel is best for the people of Montana. Because I think that we’re at a critical point.”
Frenchtown Smurfit Stone Community Advisory Group members Jeri Delys, Jennifer Harrington and Bruce Sims joined Elena Evans, Missoula City-County Environmental Health manager, for the early morning drive to Helena to tell state legislators about their concerns that more sampling is needed.
Delys gave an overview of the rollercoaster ride that the people of Frenchtown have taken since Smurfit Stone announced in 2009 that it would close the mill, eliminating 417 jobs. First, they were told the mill site would be scrapped and needed to be cleaned. Then the company said the site was clean. In 2011, another company bought it to manufacture clean-energy parts but later went broke so the lender foreclosed. The next thing they hear is it’s a Superfund site.
“You mentioned the (Superfund) model at Libby - I will tell you that the model we have at the Frenchtown Smurfit Stone Community Advisory Group is an incredibly, hard-working cohesive collaborative group. I feel we have made great strides despite the highs and lows we’ve seen over the past few years,” Delys said. “Others will talk about where we go from here, and how we do it, who does it, and how do we restore trust, how do we restore communication and commitment, and how do we build back our community.”
A few former mill workers discussed known contamination sites and how they came to be there, from large polychlorinated biphenyl - PCB - leaks that were merely covered over in concrete, to partially full barrels of chemicals and transformer oil that were either placed in a dump or compressed and buried in a trench.
“A lot of material went into that dump site. The local health department has photos showing that dump site that look very intimidating, with a bunch of barrels and wood ties. That area has all been covered up by 18 inches of clay and 6 inches of topsoil,” said former worker Larry Weeks. “So that’s been capped, and now the concern is, with groundwater coming up to the bottom of the dump, that some things are leaking out.”
Evans detailed how Missoula County and the Community Advisory Group knew about these and other contamination sites and also knew the groundwater had risen at least 4 feet after the mill stopped pumping so much water to use in the pulping process. So they had a lot of questions that weren’t answered by the EPA’s initial soil and groundwater sampling, which didn’t seem to assess a lot of the mill site.
Then a year ago, EPA Region 8 administrator KC Becker promised that more sampling would be done. The Community Working Group and Missoula County wrangled with the EPA this past spring to develop “data quality objectives” to select what data needed to be collected.
“Each step in the Superfund “snake” builds off of the last one. That’s why it was really vital to have KC Becker commit to that additional sampling. Because we were about to turn that corner without having a clear understanding of what the risks were on site and that’s what drives the Superfund process,” Evans said. “Everything is tied to risk.”
While the toxins are a priority subject, the berms holding back the river are always a source of contention. Tim Hall, Missoula Conservation District Board chair, reiterated that the conservation district doesn’t want to keep issuing 310 permits for repairs on the old, earthen berms that weren’t engineered to be permanent structures.
“I’ve had the unfortunate occasion to be standing on top of the berm in 2018 when the Clark Fork river was flooding in the spring, and the berm itself was trembling beneath our feet,” Hall said. “I can tell you it’s unnerving to realize the river is mere inches away from capturing its old channels and what’s behind the channels in the sediment, in the soils and in the waterways.”
If they’re not removed during the cleanup, the berms will become the responsibility of the landowner. Michele Lemieux of the Montana Dam Safety Program said the program has no say over the berms, because it protects people downstream of larger dams and has a complaint process for smaller dams. Both deal with public safety and not environmental damage.
John Harrison, attorney for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes said the tribes existed in the area long before it was polluted by the Smurfit Stone mill and have treaty rights to fish in the Clark Fork. But their health is threatened by fish poisoned by toxins from the mill. They want the berms removed and the river and its floodplain restored.
“The tribes have a history of work as a Superfund trustee on the Clark Fork. In the upper Clark Fork, the Milltown site, the tribes were a key player in those restoration efforts and they remain a player as a trustee on the Smurfit site,” Harrison said. “The tribes’ goal is to restore the river where it’s harmed and maintain it where it’s healthy.”
Trevor Selch, Fish, Wildlife and Parks water pollution biologist, said FWP, Trout Unlimited and the CSKT completed their study of toxins in the Columbia River Basin this summer and should have results this spring that could augment the fish consumption advisory along 150 miles of the Clark Fork River.
After the council had heard several speakers, they peppered EPA project manager Allie Archer with questions, especially after hearing that additional sampling will push the cleanup decision back to 2028.
A few asked why the EPA isn’t doing something about the site and the berms, which could be washed away if there’s a big flood like the one that hit the Yellowstone River last year. Archer said the EPA hasn’t reached the point in the process where it fleshes out alternatives so she couldn’t say what would happen to the berms. The EPA does monthly monitoring of the berms and has a contingency plan in place and contractors available should the waters rise to top the berm. In addition, the newly added climate vulnerability assessment will model larger 100-year floods to assess the risk.
Karlen asked a number of questions trying to learn why the EPA didn’t sample some of the wells requested by the CAG and Missoula County during the spring meetings. He asked whether the landowners who are responsible for paying for the work have more say than they should. Archer said she made the decision to do a first round of sampling with fewer wells, but more wells could be included next year if the data shows they’re needed.
“This has analysis paralysis written all over it. We have a bunch of samples that show it needs to be cleaned up and we have folks that want more samples done,” said EQC chair Sen. Bob Brown, R-Trout Creek. “Let’s just clean up the obvious. It’s there; we know it’s there. To keep jumping through the hoop of sampling and process without actually putting some effort into cleaning up the problem, how do we get to that?”
Brown asked Jon Morgan, attorney for the Department of Environmental Quality if the state could make the decision to act on its own to clean up the Smurfit Stone site. Morgan said the law would allow that, but for now, DEQ prefers its consultation role with the EPA.
“We’re in a unique role to discuss citizen and state concerns with the EPA. And working with the CAG is a good way to do that,” Morgan said. “The bulk of (the laws in the cleanup) are state statutes, so we really do play an important role in helping to drive that cleanup toward what we view as protective under our own state statutes.”
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.