The administration of President Donald Trump has outlined plans to cut the budget and staff of the Environmental Protection Agency by as much as 20 percent, a proposal that – if approved by Congress – would place efforts to clean up several polluted industrial sites along the Clark Fork River, such as the massive former Smurfit-Stone mill in Frenchtown, in serious jeopardy.

On Thursday, the Washington Post and other news outlets obtained the Trump administration’s budget blueprint for 2018 that included sweeping cuts to the EPA. The documents showed that the EPA’s workforce would be slashed by almost 3,000 employees and its budget by $2 billion. Initiatives like the Brownfields grants program – used to clean up sites like the Old Sawmill district in Missoula – would lose 44 percent of their funding.

Everything from leaking underground storage tanks to wetlands protection to toxic substance compliance would see curtailment or elimination. The budget is not yet final and would likely be changed by Congress. However, those who want to see the Smurfit site cleaned up and put back to use are deeply concerned that a rollback of the agency would have dire consequences on the tenuous progress that has already been made.

Peter Nielsen, the director of the Water Quality District with the Missoula City-County Health Department, believes that deep funding cuts to the EPA would be welcome news to the out-of-state corporations that are trying to avoid legal and financial responsibility for cleaning up the huge mess west of Missoula.

“We need a strong EPA because there is resistance from the companies at every step,” Nielsen said. “We need the EPA to have a good legal staff, a good project management staff and management at the EPA in order to contend with companies of this nature that have the resources to put into resisting cleanup at this site.”

The longer the cleanup is stalled, Nielsen said, the longer the Frenchtown schools, the fire department and local residents will have to wait to get their fair share of property taxes from the site, which are currently delinquent.

The 3,200-acre Smurfit site was a paper pulp mill from 1957 until 2010. Tons of hazardous chemicals harmful to humans and wildlife were used or produced there, and more than 900 acres consists of unlined ponds used to store treated and untreated wastewater and sludge from the mill.

A few gravel berms are all that separate the Clark Fork River from polluted areas, and local officials and residents are especially concerned that a big spring runoff could cause the berms to fail or be overrun.

In May 2013, the EPA proposed adding the site to the National Priorities List of Superfund sites, but that process is not final. However, the EPA – which declined to comment on this story – is the lead agency investigating the site right now. The potentially responsible parties are companies called WestRock, International Paper and M2Green Redevelopment.

“When they start talking about cutting 20 percent of the EPA’s budget and closing offices, we need to be pretty wary in Montana,” Nielsen said. “No other state in the EPA’s Region 8 has its own office like Montana does. The regional headquarters is in Denver. Why? Because we have the Clark Fork River, which is a huge success story underway. There is a lot of potential future work that won’t get done if you are cutting EPA staff."

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Montana’s industrial past includes more than a century of manufacturing, logging and mining operations located conveniently near waterways like the Clark Fork River with little knowledge or forethought about the effects on the ecosystem. Now, after pivoting away from the resource-extraction industry that built much of the state’s economy, the state is reckoning with that history and trying to clean up these sites to make them safe for people and in many cases, viable for a different sort of economic activity again.

There are 17 Superfund sites in Montana and one proposed site – the Smurfit-Stone mill. These are places so polluted that the EPA has been called in to oversee cleanup efforts. In Columbia Falls, the cleanup of a huge aluminum factory is being led by the EPA. In Libby, the cleanup of asbestos-mining operations and contaminated groundwater are being led by the EPA. The EPA was instrumental in the cleanup of the former Bonner logging mill site – which is now home to a flourishing business and residential community - and the removal of the Milltown Dam.

Downstream from Missoula, the EPA is in the process of cleaning up the Flat Creek Iron Mountain Mine and Mill near the town of Superior, where mining operations contaminated soil, groundwater and surface water with heavy metals and other hazardous chemicals from 1909 to 1953. Upstream from Missoula, the Clark Fork River was even more heavily abused. The Department of Environmental Quality is undertaking a 15-year effort to clean up 44 miles of river, which means removing soil contaminated with copper and other heavy metals when a huge flood washed through smelter sites upstream around Butte all the way to the dam in Missoula.

The EPA is leading cleanup efforts at the 300-square-mile Anaconda Co. Smelter site, where mining and smelting produced wastes with high concentrations of arsenic and hazardous chemicals that contaminated soil and water for nearly a hundred years until 1980.

The EPA also oversees the largest body of contaminated water in the United States – the Berkeley Pit – located in Butte. The pit’s metal-laden water has already reached around 50 billion gallons and became infamous around the globe last year when a flock of geese was poisoned after landing on it in a snowstorm.

In fact, there is a "do not eat" order for northern pike  and a “four meal per month” limit for rainbow trout in the Clark Fork River because of the presence of toxins. 

That’s the reason why Montana is the only state in Region 8 that has a separate office in addition to the regional headquarters.

In essence, the cleanup of these industrial sites – meant to restore the healthy waterways that provide an economic boon for Montana’s thriving outdoor recreation industry – would be a daunting task for even a fully funded EPA. The proposed funding cuts by President Trump – who won Montana’s three electoral votes - have those who want to see the Smurfit-Stone site restored and put back to use aghast at the amount of momentum that could be throttled back.

“There is no question the report of this significant of a budget slash and staff reduction and elimination of programs sounded the alarms bells in our office,” said Karen Knudsen, the executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring and protecting local fisheries, wetlands and waterways. “Clean water is the backbone of communities. Is this an appropriate trade off for a built-up military (part of Trump's budget proposal)?

"From our perspective this budget is a full-on retreat from common sense. It’s reckless and a retreat from the history that led to the formation of the EPA in the first place. It forgets the lessons of a contaminated landscape.”

Jeri Delys, who has lived in Frenchtown since 1985, is now the chair of the West Valley Community Council. She said the EPA has been extremely valuable and responsive in moving forward with cleanup.

“You’re going to lose that,” she said. “This is progress, and that’s the last thing that we want to see go away is that strong collaboration. There’s a lot of things moving forward, and you lose that cog in the wheel, which has been the EPA, it is in my opinion too many steps back.”

Neilsen said it took 20 years to get the Milltown Dam removed.

“We have some pretty big sites in Montana that are complicated and difficult to work through,” Nielsen said. “If we don’t throw resources into managing the Smurfit-Stone site, what do you think will happen? Things will slow down and we’ll probably end up with a less-than-satisfactory result. I would be very concerned about them thinking about trying to trim the Montana office or slow down. It’s going to affect the community.”

The site is in such rough condition that the community can’t afford to just let it sit for decades, he explained.

“Cleaning it up would eliminate the risk of flooding and sending a bunch of contaminated industrial waste into the valley in a big flood,” Nielsen said. “Cleanup of the site also allows a full range of potential land uses out there. The Superfund program is the only thing we’ve got going. Hopefully they don’t cut this thing to the bone where it starts to hurt us and causes further protracted delays that leave this property in this horrid condition."

He said the site looks like "bombs have been dropped" out there right now.

Rep. Kim Dudik, a Democrat who represents the Frenchtown area of House District 94, said her constituents are “frustrated” more than anything else at how long it’s taken to clean up the site.

“I think that if people are paying their taxes, like the citizens are doing out there, and there is a taxpayer-funded federal agency that is supposed to clean up the site, people would be very disappointed to see cuts that will negatively affect the cleanup of it,” Dudik said.

Nielsen noted that whether it’s the Brownfields grants program or the Superfund program, Missoula has benefited from a strong EPA that forces companies to comply with cleaning up their pollution. "Hopefully our Senator Daines and Senator Tester and whoever we elect to replace Zinke will be able to protect Montana’s interest in cleanup of these contaminated sites. It means a lot to us.”

For Delys, who chairs the West Valley Community Council and has fought to keep the cleanup effort ongoing, the EPA has played a crucial role in holding private companies accountable for making things right again in Frenchtown.

“Every time I ride my bike by that site I shake my head,” she said. “It disgusts me on many levels. I guess it’s frustrating because I feel like we’ve come a really long ways. To think about what does that cut to the EPA look like…the fear is nothing happens. We’ve had all this amazing progress and all these agencies working together and that’s the last thing we want to see go away.”

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