Missoula County seeks 'reset' over Smurfit-Stone cleanup
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Missoula County seeks 'reset' over Smurfit-Stone cleanup

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Missoula County hopes to “reset” its relationship with the Environmental Protection Agency over the remediation of the former Smurfit-Stone mill site, after the departure of the longtime project manager.

The county decided Thursday to send a letter to Allie Archer, the new remedial project manager for the Frenchtown site, welcoming her to the position and formally inviting her to meet with them on Jan. 15 to discuss issues related to the cleanup effort.

“This is a good opportunity to reset the relationship and hopefully improve communication,” Travis Ross, the environmental health specialist for the Missoula Valley Water Quality District, told the county commission. “It’s also a good opportunity to reiterate the county’s concerns … in light of the 2018 flooding.”

Ross warned, however, that the Jan. 15 meeting may have to be postponed due to the federal government shutdown, which is heading into its third week.

Missoula County’s relationship with EPA officials and former project manager Sara Sparks has been strained at times as they work out a remediation plan for the former 3,200-acre paper and pulp mill, which closed in 2010. 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.

Much of the area 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.

After that meeting, Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the EPA heard their concerns and understood the level of their frustration. He noted that looking forward, the groups will watch closely to see how the EPA addresses the issues, and noted Thursday that the letter is “a good way to keep the pressure on.”

Ross reiterated their concerns in the letter signed by the commission. One of those includes review of the supplemental sampling that was collected in late 2018.

“We would like to talk about perspectives and timing of the different types of data that may be collected to support a feasibility study or, better yet, support removal of buried wastes,” the letter states.

They also want to discuss the status and implementation of a more complete flood contingency plan, which the county wants to be in place before another high-water event.

In addition, the county wants “greater assurance” that an in-depth assessment of the landfills and sludge ponds will take place during the development of a feasibility study.

“We know that groundwater is affected, and that evaluation of deep soil and groundwater conditions on such a large site is difficult,” Ross wrote in the letter. “Our fear is that ‘false negatives’ due to the density of groundwater monitoring wells will yield a false sense of ‘no further action’ (is) warranted. We continue to advocate for an initial complete investigation of the landfills and sludge ponds prior to completion of the Risk Assessment.”

Ross noted that the EPA’s effort is taking place in conjunction with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, and Shaun McGrath, a former EPA regional administrator, now heads the state agency. The water quality district board has invited him to a meeting to discuss the remediation effort.

Ross wrote in the letter that the county’s goals for the former mill site are to eliminate all public safety and health risks; restore the river and the floodplain; make sure that the parties responsible for the pollution, as well as the site owners, pay for the remediation instead of taxpayers and area residents; look for ways to redevelop the site; and continue to provide public involvement throughout the process.

He noted they worked successfully with the EPA during the investigation and cleanup of the Milltown Dam site, and hopes for a similar outcome in Frenchtown.

“EPA is committed to having a better relationship,” Ross said.

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