A large area of contamination and potential contamination surrounds the former Frenchtown pulp mill and its extensive network of settling ponds. (EPA photo)
A large area of contamination and potential contamination surrounds the former Frenchtown pulp mill and its extensive network of settling ponds. (EPA photo)

Crews on contract with the Environmental Protection Agency are preparing to sample the extent of contamination around the former Smurfit-Stone Container mill, but some citizens and agency officials are questioning the selection of sampling sites.

On Thursday evening, the Frenchtown Smurfit-Stone Community Advisory Group mulled its response to a 365-page Environmental Protection Agency document published July 19.

Advisory Group Chair Jeri Delys asked that the EPA extend the comment deadline from Aug. 6 to Aug. 10 to give the public more time to wade through the somewhat technical tome. Locals had been asking for a hard copy to be made available.

EPA representative Allie Archer said she’d request the extension, but that the EPA wants to start sampling the week of Aug. 13 so they’re on a tight timeline.

The document, Addendum 9 to the Investigation Work Plan, outlined how crews would sample water, sediments and animal tissue around the mill site and Clark Fork River. The information would give the EPA and the advisory group a better idea of how far the contamination stretches and where it still poses a threat to people and the environment.

Newfields, an environmental company working for the EPA, did initial sampling at a number of sites in 2015. But more information is needed to complete the picture, including water and sediment sampling upstream to learn what the water is like before it reaches the site and sampling farther down the river to learn how far the contamination spread.

That makes this sampling trip important. So the choice of sites is critical to future cleanup efforts and a few advisory group members had concerns.

Mary Price, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes representative, wanted more information on how the sites were chosen.

“What were the criteria? I don’t know that I would object to the sites. But that’s the kind of information I’m seeking,” Price said. “The EPA committed to sampling the Clark Fork River to Alberton. I think they came pretty close. But it would help if they would show river miles and towns on the map so we can get an idea of the distance between sampling points.”

Travis Ross of the Missoula Water Quality District also complained about not being able to see where the sites were looking at the tiny map in the Addendum 9 document.

Ross also questioned why the EPA wasn’t sampling for dioxins as long as it was already sampling for metals. Dioxins, namely chlorine dioxin used to bleach paper at the mill, are highly toxic even at low levels and remain in the environment for decades.

When the EPA sampled a few river sites for dioxins after this spring’s flooding, the results were negative.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks biologist David Schmetterling said FWP would be submitting comments criticizing the way sites were selected to measure background conditions and downstream contamination. Schmetterling has decades of experience with river contamination after being actively involved in studies of the Milltown Dam.

“We don’t feel it does an adequate job of identifying control locations to determine what people refer to as ‘background.’ And we thought the sites were really biased downstream. There are many sites that are very close to one another, and there won’t be any understanding of what areas are contributing,” Schmetterling said. “They can have the same number of samples but just from a different geographic area. Testing is expensive – we recognize this – but we’ve had these comments for this study design and we’ve made those comments for a long time.”

Archer said she’d let the group know Friday if the comment period was extended.