The past and present owners of the former Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. mill site have agreed to begin testing the property for contamination and will collectively reimburse the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for past costs.
The EPA announced the agreement Thursday night, and more details are expected next week.
“This agreement helps us take the steps necessary to fully identify and begin to address threats to human health and the environment at the site,” said Shaun McGrath, EPA’s regional administrator in Denver. “We’re encouraged that sampling is scheduled to begin this month.”
Under the agreement, current owner M2Green, along with International Paper and WestRock, will begin the first phase of testing next week. Together, they will also reimburse the EPA $600,000 for past costs.
Peter Nielsen, the environmental health supervisor with Missoula County, had yet to see a copy of the agreement Friday, though he’s encouraged by the progress.
“It’s taken a concerted effort to get to this point,” Nielsen said. “The companies that own the liability for the site have been required to step forward and start doing some work, so it’s a start.”
Still, Nielsen has concerns regarding the nature of the investigation. The county, along with the Clark Fork Coalition and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, discussed the lack of progress at the site during a tour last month.
The groups also detailed their environmental concerns, many of which focused on the tailing ponds and the industrial landfill that sits within the Clark Fork River floodplain.
“We’ve had no input into the design or scope of the work, and we were assured we would,” Nielsen said. “There may be things we want to see done differently, or have suggestions and comments on scope, and we haven’t been able to share those.”
Nielsen’s largest concern rests on one particular landfill used by the former pulp and paper mill as a dumping ground from 1957 to 1993. Old photographs suggest that drums and industrial waste could be buried on the site.
“I don’t see any way of investigating that landfill without digging a hole in the ground,” Nielsen said. “They’re just going to do borings. You’re not going to find that stuff by poking a few holes in the ground.”
While details of the agreement haven’t been released, Nielsen said early conversations suggest the responsible parties will conduct testing in three operational units.
The testing will include soil sampling, groundwater sampling and sediment sampling in the river. Testing will occur on the core industrial site, on the agricultural land that surrounds it, and in the wastewater ponds.
The EPA’s initial evaluation of the site found several contaminants of concern, including dioxins, furans, arsenic and manganese. The results of the investigation will determine cleanup needs and identify potential cleanup options.
“I suspect we’ll have a few comments on the nature of the work,” Nielsen said. “We probably won’t be bashful about sharing those.”
Karen Knudsen, executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition, also hailed the announcement as progress. It’s been five years since the mill shuttered, she said, and contaminants are believed to be moving through groundwater in the river.
“In theory, the voluntary approach can be every bit as good as a full-blown Superfund listing,” Knudsen said. “Of course, the devil is always in the details. For now, it’s clear the problem has these companies' attention. It’s an encouraging first step.”
Knudsen said the voluntary approach announced by the EPA does not close the door on a possible Superfund listing down the road.
“If they’re not moving along effectively or smoothly, it can still happen,” she said.