Viewpoint: EPA must finally act on Smurfit site cleanup
The Smurfit-Stone Superfund site is an abandoned paper mill 12 miles northwest of
Missoula near Frenchtown, Montana. It sits along the Clark Fork River. Members of the
community are concerned about contaminated groundwater that leaches chemicals into the river.
There are also untreated unlined pools of wastewater on site that sit within the 100 year floodplain of the Clark Fork and have already spilled into the Clark Fork during high flows in the Spring of 2018. Smurfit-Stone poses a threat to communities along the Clark Fork, and it needs to be addressed urgently.
Smurfit-Stone began operation as a paper mill in 1957 and closed after bankruptcy in
2010. The EPA began testing for potential pollution immediately after closing. According to the Clark Fork Coalition, the EPA knew of the presence of toxic contaminants by 2012 or ‘13, but the EPA stopped testing after that and ruled the original studies invalid due to protocol reasons.
Years later, another round of testing was done. More testing on the site is being planned
because, as EPA Remedial Project Manager Allie Archer put it, “There are a lot of data gaps, the community feels, and that the EPA has not adequately characterized the site.”
During operation of the mill, waste was dumped in unlined waste pools on site.
Groundwater under and near these waste dump areas contains arsenic, manganese,
dioxins/furans, and other contaminants in excess of state and federal standards.
Human-created dioxin, which is the most prominent toxin at the site, is carcinogenic, causes reproductive harm, damage to the immune system, and once ingested, stores in fatty tissue.
Dioxins do not break down--they bioaccumulate, or collect in the bodies of animals and get passed through the food chain. In 2020, the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks deemed the fish from the stretch of the Clark Fork River from its confluence with the Bitterroot River near Milltown to the Flathead River near Plains unsafe for human consumption.
There is a berm separating the site and the river, but it lacks structural integrity, and was
designed to slowly release pollutants into the Clark Fork. Small floods pose a serious risk to our river as well as human health. During light flooding in the Spring of 2018, the berm broke.
As a result, a plume of runoff with the same chemical makeup as the waste pools on site appeared in the Clark Fork. The flows of 2018 were a 25 year event, meaning there is 4% chance of such events occurring every year. Many of the site’s waste pools sit within the 100 year floodplain of the river, meaning a bigger flood could carry catastrophic amounts of pollutants into the Clark Fork.
Under Superfund law, the previous owners of the site are liable for the cleanup of the
site. After testing is complete, a feasibility study will be conducted, where a potential buyer of the property will be brought in to discuss plans for future land use.
“As far as a cleanup decision, I think we’ve scoped it out to 2028 now,” says Archer. It is unknown when cleanup of the site will begin and how long it will last, but one thing is clear: with every passing year, there is risk of flooding that will devastate entire communities. The system in place for cleanup simply takes too long to protect us.
It is easy to feel like the threat of Smurfit-Stone is something distant and unlikely, but it is not. Say there is an atmospheric flood, like in Yellowstone in June 2022. The berm would break and high flows would wash out the waste pools into the Clark Fork, saturating riverside communities like Frenchtown and Plains with dioxin, destroying wildlife and agriculture, and posing a threat to human health.
The pollutants would spread up the food chain, through fish to bears, it would contaminate the soil, then our crops, and then us. The worst part is we do not know the full extent of damage that can be done, because the EPA has not done sufficient testing on all parts of the site, so the chemical makeup is not fully understood.
Every year, Spring runoff leaves people in communities like Frenchtown, Alberton, Plains and Thompson Falls anxious that something like this will happen. The Clark Fork is the backbone of countless Montana communities and cleaning up Smurfit-Stone is a vital step in preserving the health and cleanliness of our environment. Smurfit-Stone has been a known issue for decades now and the EPA has a history of dragging its feet when it comes to this site.
There is new leadership in the EPA and there is reason to be hopeful that they will do more, but that requires our action. We must do everything we can to bring this issue to light. We must sign the Clark Fork Coalition petition. We must write to the EPA, demanding their action. We must spread awareness of this issue. Take action before Montana communities are doused with chemicals beyond repair.
Ella Bradley is an environmental studies major at the University of Montana.