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Smurfit operating

Smurfit-Stone at Frenchtown last operated in 2010. 

The sluggish process of cleaning up the old Smurfit-Stone mill site near Frenchtown got testy Tuesday as stakeholders clamored for more time to study monitoring and work plans.

“As one of the natural resource trustees, in order to ensure meaningful coordination, we really do need more than two weeks to review these documents,” attorney Katherine Hausrath of the state Natural Resource Damage Program said.

“I want to go on record that the two-week comment period, with having to review multiple documents, is a challenge for our limited staff here,” agreed Mary Price, a scientist with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ legal department. “I haven’t heard a compelling reason why two weeks is the comment period.”

It’s because winter’s just around the corner, replied Sara Sparks, the EPA’s remedial project manager, during the third of four quarterly teleconference updates of the cleanup process of the proposed Superfund site. The public has made it clear at meetings and in comments that it wants to see the process expedited, she said.

“I understand what you’re saying, but I want everybody to understand if we push this off too much, it’s a whole other year before we’re collecting data. That’s where we’re at,” Sparks told representatives of government agencies, CSKT, Missoula County and a community advisory group.

Owners and past owners of the mill reached an agreement with EPA in November 2015 to conduct an investigation of soils, river sediments and ground and surface water to determine the nature and extent of contamination at the abandoned site.

Drafts of a handful of the most recent testing plans will be ready for review and comment soon, some at the same time. 

One is to remove polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from two areas where elevated levels were found. It should be ready for review and comment in approximately two weeks, Sparks said, with the goal of completing total removal in September and October.

Stakeholders should also receive by the end of July a work plan to study the stability of earthen berms on the mill site, to be conducted in the September-October time frame. Sparks said that the more than eight miles of berms built years ago around industrial cooling ponds and waste sites made it through spring runoff with no problem.

A third study soon up for review will guide groundwater monitoring. Sparks said EPA and the three potentially responsible parties are completing development of a 2017 plan, though a draft of it was put into action last week in order to test during high water. More will be done during low flow in November and December.

Sparks said the proposal for the late-year testing will be finalized after a two-week review/comment period by stakeholders “in the near future.” But Peter Nielsen of Missoula County voiced frustration that testing already began without public input.

“This happened last time. We were handed the work plan on the day the work started,” said Nielsen, an environmental health supervisor and a leading voice in the Superfund cleanup of the Milltown Dam a decade ago. “Now the work has already started, and we haven’t had a chance to comment on the site’s groundwater monitoring plan at all. How do you see that as being meaningful in any way?”

“That’s a good point, Peter,” Sparks replied. “The bottom line is we were going to miss high flow and we needed to collect that data. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to take your comments and include them in the November-December comment period. And moving forward there’ll be long-term monitoring. We will incorporate comment and will be discussing them with you and use them as appropriate as we move forward.”

An ecological risk assessment will be distributed to members of a Biological Technical Assistance Group (BTAG) for the two most problematic areas of the mill site. Operable Unit 2, roughly 255 acres, covers the core industrial footprint of the mill. OU3 consists of some 1,700 acres of settling ponds and parts of the Clark Fork River floodplain.

Price, who represents the tribes in the technical assistance group, requested something the group has not yet had: a visit to the old mill.

“It would be very helpful in providing meaningful comments if we could actually go look at the site,” she said.

Sparks is working with the landowner to set up a tour.

“We’ll let you know how that’s moving forward, but I agree, the sooner the better,” she said.

Current owner M2Green Redevelopment, LLC, is one of three potentially responsible parties, or PRPs, in the Superfund cleanup. The others are West Rock CP, representing Smurfit-Stone, which shuttered the mill in 2010, and International Paper Co., an iteration of previous owner Champion International.

Waldorf Paper Products built the Frenchtown plant and began producing paper products on the banks of the Clark Fork River in the late 1950s. It became both a stabilizing economic influence and an ongoing environmental concern for Frenchtown and Missoula County in subsequent decades as Hoerner Waldorf, Champion International, Stone Container and, in 1985, Smurfit-Stone Container.

Sparks said high levels of manganese have been detected in one test well, and oil was found in the casings of production wells. The type of oil used by the mill turned out not to contain hazardous material. Manganese is a common, even essential, element but at elevated levels can cause toxicity and deficiency symptoms in plants.

The community advisory group met for the first time in March and most recently on June 20. It’s an independent group of community members representing a variety of stakeholder groups, and is meant to promote the exchange of information among the EPA, the community, and people involved in cleanup of the site. Its next meeting is set for Aug. 3 in the Frenchtown Fire Hall.

Jen Harrington, a University of Montana graduate student and member of the Missoula Water Quality Advisory Council, questioned whether the community truly wants EPA to speed up the cleanup process.

“My understanding is the public would prefer to be included throughout the process and to have ample time to give meaningful comment so we fully understand what’s going on,” she said. “At the Bonner-Milltown (Superfund) site, which was concluded after a 30-year cleanup process, more time was better because more information could be gathered before action was taken.”

“What we’ll do,” Sparks conceded, “is we’ll get the documents out and if it’s determined that we need additional time for comment, I’m willing to go to the public and say to them that these groups need additional time. I don’t have a problem with that.”

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Mineral County, Veterans Issues Reporter

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian