Smurfit stone

After spring flooding in 2018, a dark stream of water was present on a stretch of the Clark Fork River outside the berm that separates the river from the former Smurfit-Stone mill site. Area officials were concerned the dark plume showed the underground movement of water from the berms to the river, and recent tests showed contaminants in the plume.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency laid out the summer’s work plan for the Smurfit-Stone site on Wednesday, noting that they don’t expect to finish studies and come up with a cleanup plan until at least 2023.

Allie Archer, the new EPA project manager for Smurfit, said they’re in the third year of the second step of an eight-phase Superfund process, which eventually will lead to a record of decision on how the site will be cleaned up,  and an action plan. The first step was the preliminary assessment and site inspection, which took place from 2001 to 2014. Since 2015, they’ve been doing a remedial investigation and risk assessment.

“We are really in the beginning of the process, beginning the investigation stage,” Archer said. “We’re trying to characterize the releases or potential releases” of heavy metals or chemicals from the site, which is adjacent to the Clark Fork River. Berms for holding ponds, which also separate the site from the river, were threatened during last year’s historic flooding.

They’re also identifying potential health risks to residents, workers and visitors, as well as to the environment, from the former paper and pulp mill, which closed in 2010. In addition, the EPA is beginning to process fish samples in 2018, and will do more fish testing this year.

Among the biggest issues are data gaps, Archer said, which is why they’re trying to figure out where they might need more information to finish the risk assessments. They’ll also continue to monitor wells at the sites to test for the contaminants of concern, which include arsenic, manganese and dioxins, and install at least one new monitoring well for a total of 57.

“We really want to update the (underground) plume model,” said Sara Edinberg with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, who is working with the EPA on the site investigation. “We have five years of monitoring data and need to sit down and start looking at trends. Are they going up, down and are there seasonal changes based on water flows? We need to figure out what’s going on at the site and find the data gaps.”

In addition, they’re trying to figure out the relationship between the upper aquifer that’s around 40 to 50 feet deep, and the lower aquifer that’s about 100 to 150 feet deep. The two aquifers are separated by a thick layer of clay. Contaminants were found in both aquifers, but not as many in the deep one, and Edinberg said they’re not sure if the two are connected.

Wednesday also was the final day for comments on the old earthen berm surveillance and contingency plan, which requires the property owner, M2Green Redevelopment, to have two contractors available within six hours if high waters threaten to erode the berms. Areas of clean materials on the 3,150-acre site near Frenchtown have been identified for the contractors to use to reinforce the berms.

Tests results also came back on the tea-colored plume that appeared to emanate from the berms during last year’s flooding, which showed elevated levels of contaminants that are on the site. Keith Large with DEQ said they’re putting together a sampling plan for future high-water events.

Officials with the EPA and DEQ promised a much more transparent communication process as the work progresses, which was one of the frustrations local officials and groups had experienced in the past. Keith Large, a project manager with the DEQ, noted that the new process will be similar to that used for the Milltown and Bonner cleanups.

“When we get the documents from the PRP (potentially responsible parties), depending on the document we will determine how long the review time will be and everyone will review it at the same time,” Large said. “It’s more work for Allie (Archer) and I to review your comments and pass them to the PRP, but I think people felt more included, more transparent, so we’ll give it a shot.”

Along with M2Green, the other potentially responsible parties that could have to pay for remediation efforts are WestRock CP and International Paper Co. They have agreed to perform a remedial investigation under the oversight of the EPA and DEQ, but have pushed back on some of the work requests based on the costs.

While Missoula County officials said they appreciate the updates and the enhanced communication, the EPA and DEQ still weren’t able to assuage fears over buried barrels that could include unknown materials, which could range from industrial waste to kitchen garbage. Missoula area groups have long requested that the barrels be removed — they have photographs of them, and reports from former employees of their locations — but the EPA said more investigation is needed.

“At some point in time it will be a problem,” Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said. “So my concern is how are we able to adequately characterize those potential points of contamination and get it cleaned up even if it’s not showing up in test wells out there?”

Archer acknowledged that she understands his frustration, adding that “just because I don’t have an answer now doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about it and we may have something going forward.”

“We’re doing what we can at this point in the process,” she said, noting if the drums start to leak 50 years down the road, that the EPA will remain involved in the remediation. “Right now, we’re discussing what characterization we can do.”

Travis Ross, an environmental health specialist with the Missoula City/County Health Department, also wants to see more wells installed to better characterize what’s going on underground.

“Within 1,000 feet you see pretty substantial difference in the wells,” Ross said. “I assume some are under the dump as well, and there may be other contaminants of concern.”

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