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Smurfit stone flooding file

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, but state and federal officials said it just might be sediments that were churned up by the high flows. 

The top Environmental Protection Agency regional and state officials vowed Tuesday to better communicate with Missoula County staff, commissioners, residents and other interested parties over the Smurfit-Stone site investigation.

Region 8 Administrator Doug Benevento, who heads the EPA’s office out of Denver, and Joe Vranka, the Montana Superfund Unit supervisor, said they may not always have the answers sought by locals, but are open to discussing issues and concerns. Allie Archer, who is taking over the site characterization efforts for the EPA, said she will meet on a regular basis with local groups to go over sampling results and future plans.

“We hear that you want to be more involved in what we are doing, and that’s reasonable,” Benevento said. “It’s important to hear directly from us.”

One of the biggest complaints from Missoula County and others is that they don’t know the extent or amount of contamination at the 3,200-acre former paper and pulp mill, which closed in 2012. Near-record floodwaters passed near, and possibly through the site last spring, adding more pressure to characterizing the site and its potential hazards.

Soil and water samples released in 2012 showed cancer-causing chemicals, including dioxins and heavy metals in the sludge ponds, groundwater and river sediments at and near the site. Underground plumes of contaminants may be moving both on the site and possibly into the river. And the county has photographs of what appear to be semi-buried empty 55-gallon drums, and anticipate that more drums, which do contain chemicals, could be buried on the site.

When pressed on exhuming and removing the 55-gallon drums, Vranka was hesitant, saying they might be empty and you “can’t just go in and dig up a landfill to investigate.”

“That’s cleanup, and just because it’s a landfill that doesn’t mean it needs to be dug up,” Vranka said. He added, however, that they could possibly use ground-penetrating radar to determine the extent of the landfill to test some of its contents.

Travis Ross, the environmental health specialist for the Missoula Valley Water Quality District, also said the EPA has done minimal sampling when it comes to both the soils and the groundwater. Of the 168-acre area of concern, he noted they only took 23 soil samples and have five monitoring wells. That equates to .13 soil borings per acre, and one well per 20 acres.

In comparison, the White Pine Sash industrial site on Missoula’s northside has 32 wells on 35 acres.

“To characterize what’s under here with one soil boring on an 11-acre landfill … isn’t a lot, especially if you mix the layers together and analyze that,” Ross said. “There is a gap. We may not be getting the worst of the worst when we’re not sampling in the middle of those, and the waste isn’t homogeneous.

“It costs more money to break up the profiles of the waste, but is it worth the risk? What happens if the river does reoccupy this area?”

The lack of sampling and modeling come from the real or perceived foot-dragging by the potentially responsible parties (PRPs) to either pay for or undertake additional site evaluation. The PRPs at the site are WestRock, International Paper and M2Green Redevelopment, all of whom have had some financial interest in the property.

“They exert some substantial control over the investigation, and that’s what drives the feasibility studies” on what type of cleanup should be done at the site, Ross added. “If they believe drilling twice as many monitoring wells is prohibitively expensive, they will argue that. At what point do they just bug up and do it? We need to know the risks. Those companies benefited for 50 years putting their waste there.”

Benevento acknowledged that the costs can be a factor in characterizing the contamination on the site, and that the PRPs don’t want to spend money the EPA can’t adequately justify making them spend.

“We need to be dead certain that what we put in the plan is something we can defend in a courtroom,” Benevento said.

Archer, who has been working closely with state agencies and the PRPs, said they’re updating their conceptual site model to better understand the source, nature and extent of the contaminants. Right now, she said they’re working on “connecting the dots” using the data they’ve collected to find out where the gaps are and where more sampling is needed, some of which will be done this year.

Much of the area of concern is within the 100-year floodplain, and during last spring’s flooding, county officials were worried about a potentially catastrophic failure of the berms that divide the site’s industrial waste from the Clark Fork River. During a tense meeting in May 2018, representatives from Missoula County, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Clark Fork Coalition and a community advisory group complained that the EPA was dragging its feet, and hadn’t listened to their concerns.

An emergency interim contingency flooding plan is in place now, and the draft final contingency plan could be released as early as this week. But even as the risk of flooding is low compared to last year, Ross remains concerned about water moving through the site. He noted that the earthen berms have had 13 repair permits issued since the 1970s, and they have at least “351 deficiencies or concerns” in them.

“We need to see the final contingency plan; what are we going to do if we do see a problem, or are they going to identify a problem? How are they going to certify a disaster and what are the responses? That’s the stuff I want to know,” Ross said. “We still have concerns — flooding and all the others — but we do feel a lot better about the communication.”

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