Greg Sopkin, the new regional head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, told Missoula County officials on Wednesday that he is focused on stopping bureaucratic delays for cleanup at the Smurfit-Stone site near Frenchtown.
At his first official meeting with local officials and stakeholders, though, he rebuffed a local water watchdog's request to remove toxic material from the industrial site defunct since 2010.
Despite a request from the Clark Fork Coalition to remove known contaminants at the site, including buried 55-gallon barrels, the federal agency will continue its assessment before digging out the waste from decades of pulp mill operations.
The coalition’s Karen Knudsen, executive director, and John DeArment, science director, said they understand the need to complete the site investigation, which has been ongoing for years. But they’re worried that high water similar to the 2018 floods could cause those buried wastes to leak and spread the contamination.
“We know toxic stuff is in unlined dumps in contact at least seasonally with the groundwater,” DeArment said. “It’s very difficult for us to envision a scenario that you will collect enough data that you will decide to leave it in place. If there’s no way to leave it in place, we hope you will find a way to expediently get it out of there … In that actually toxic area we would like to see, as a good faith effort for the community and the river, to get it out of there.”
Allie Archer, who is overseeing the work for the EPA, said they’re currently putting together a document that includes all of the investigations that have been done to characterize the site so far. But there may be data gaps that need to be filled before they create an Environmental Assessment that looks at all the risks and presents the cleanup options.
“I see where the concerns are and what the (contamination) levels dictate,” Archer said. “In the meantime we have a lot of data coming in that will be incorporated into the risk assessment.”
Archer added that she hopes to meet more often with community members, possibly reviving quarterly meetings, to bring them up to speed on the characterization and monitoring work.
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Sopkin, who took the reins in Region 8 in May, is the most recent person to fill that administrator role, which is based in Denver and oversees efforts in Montana, Colorado, the Dakotas, Utah, Wyoming and 27 tribal nations. Before that, Doug Benevento was in the top seat for about 1 ½ years. He replaced Deb Thomas, who served as acting chief for about two years after the departure of Shaun McGrath, whose tenure ran from 2013 to 2017.
Sopkin is a former Colorado Public Utilities Commission chairman and an attorney since 1991, specializing in energy, environment and telecommunications law. He praised the community activists he met with in Missoula on Wednesday, including members of the Frenchtown Smurfit-Stone Community Advisory Group, for their advocacy.
He noted that Benevento, who took a promotion, was the person who hired him and that he’s trying to follow in his footsteps when it comes to enhanced communication with Missoula County area residents.
“I will pay attention to the community and what they want to see,” Sopkin said. “We are sort of in the early stages of the timeline. We’ll do the environmental assessment first to find out where there are problems; what’s contaminated and what’s not. Once we fully characterize the area, then we can move forward with a feasibility study — what we can do about it.”
He hopes to have the draft environmental assessment ready to release to the public next year.
“Every step of the way, you folks will be involved in providing your thoughts on what you think should happen,” Sopkin said.
Commissioner Dave Strohmaier praised Sopkin’s approach, saying that while they want to see the remediation and reclamation work accomplished quickly, he’s not willing to sacrifice quality for expediency.
“Our communication and coordination with the EPA hasn’t always been good, but we’re moving on a productive trajectory in the past year and a half,” Strohmaier said. “Last spring, Doug Benevento met with us a number of times. I had great communication with him. From Missoula County’s standpoint, we feel there’s great collaboration going on.
“I’m looking forward to working with you, Greg. Your presence here today signifies your commitment to moving forward.”