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A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers inspection team checked 2.5 miles of earthen dike protecting industrial drain fields along the Clark Fork River last May. Spring runoff pushed 51,000 cubic feet of water per second at the 53-year-old dike, where the earthen structure hadn’t been maintained since 2010 when the Smurfit-Stone Container pulp mill went out of business.

FRENCHTOWN — A gallery of cottonwoods, trunk-deep in muddy Clark Fork River water, ends suddenly at the edge of the 1,200-acre drainfield south of a defunct pulp mill.

“The river wants to go right there,” Clark Fork Coalition science director Jon DeArment said, pointing to a curving dike where weeds replaced trees on the north shoreline. “That’s where the old channel and the floodplain used to be.”

That’s also where Missoula and Montana state officials suspect a half-century of toxic waste dumping sits behind a 2.5-mile-long earthen berm that hasn’t been maintained since Smurfit-Stone Container closed the Frenchtown mill in 2010. On Friday, the Clark Fork threw 51,000 cubic feet of spring runoff a second at that old dike. The forecast predicts 56,000 cfs by Monday, just below the 50-year flood category. A few miles upstream, floating trees hit Kona Bridge hard enough to make it ring like a bell.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality have confirmed the presence of cancer-causing dioxins, PCBs, mercury and other hazardous materials on about 160 acres within the millsite. It’s unknown what other hot spots might exist in the former cooling ponds that lay between the mill and the river. The dumps were built before state regulation would have required special linings and other protections to keep their contents out of groundwater. The berm was the only thing keeping them out of the river.

“You can’t count on that berm to protect those dumps forever,” DeArment said. “We don’t think there’s any way to defend allowing that waste to remain in there.”

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers inspectors reported the dike appeared stable when they cruised its length on Friday. Missoula City-County environmental health specialist Travis Ross said they found some “boils” where pressure from river water made dirt inside the dike bulge up. But there was no sign of erosion or other progressive damage to the main structure.

“It looked like there was enough freeboard between the top of the berm and the river,” said Ross, who accompanied the survey. “They’re going to recommend regular inspections, which EPA and DEQ have required from the potentially responsible parties.”

Those parties are the owners and investors who bought the millsite after Smurfit-Stone Container was absorbed by other companies in a series of corporate transfers. Missoula County and state officials have asked EPA to grant Superfund status to the site, which would force the private entities liable for the waste to pay for its clean-up.

“Missoula County has written repeatedly to both the EPA and DEQ since the mill closed in 2010 and requested that the risks posed by the unlicensed dumps at the site be evaluated,” the commissioners wrote on March 28. “We believe the risks of floods eroding these dumps and the ongoing release of contaminants from the dumps to groundwater are the primary ecological and human health risks posed by the site.”

The letter includes several historic photos of dump sites, waste barrels and sludge pouring out of pipes on the site.

“A large flood has the potential to erode 53 years of accumulation of sludge, ash, and industrial waste that has yet to be properly characterized,” the letter continued. “These photos are evidence of the materials that may be currently affecting groundwater and are certainly vulnerable to floods. Missoula County urges the EPA to conduct more in-depth fish tissue analysis to document the geographic extent and species of fish affected by PCBs, dioxins and mercury.”

That process has dragged on nearly a decade since the mill closed. And while preliminary EPA investigations have shown the dumps pose a health and safety risk to future industrial or residential users on the ground, it hasn’t considered what might happen if the dike fails and the dump sites get flooded.

“We’re feeling some real frustration with the project management,” Clark Fork Coalition Director Karen Knudsen said. “We want to see stronger enforcement from the agencies in charge of getting this cleaned up. When (Montana) Fish, Wildlife & Parks looked at dioxin and PCBs here, they put out a 'do not eat' warning on pike and 'limited consumption' on trout on 100 miles of the Clark Fork from the confluence of the Bitterroot down. That sounded alarm bells. We’ve repeatedly asked EPA to look into it, and it’s still not done.”

Knudsen said a similar scenario played out with the removal of Milltown Dam upstream of Missoula.

“Every year, we keep our fingers crossed hoping we’re not going to be dealing with a situation like this,” Knudsen said. “It’s time to stop dinking around and get this cleaned up.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.