Dioxins. Furans. These aren’t words we typically associate with western Montana’s spectacular rivers. Unfortunately, a recent study by MT Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) shows that high levels of these carcinogenic substances have been found in northern pike and rainbow trout in areas downstream of the former Smurfit-Stone mill site west of Missoula.
The data brought to light in this recent study compelled FWP, the MT Dept. of Environmental Quality, and MT Public Health and Human Services to issue fish advisories for 105 miles of the Clark Fork from its confluence with the Bitterroot downstream to the Flathead River. In sum, state agencies are advising people to consume no more than four (4) rainbow trout per month, and to avoid eating northern pike altogether.
MT FWP opted to conduct their investigations into game fish populations following the release of initial survey results conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at Smurfit in 2011. The EPA-study sampled sludge ponds and river sediments at Smurfit, and found elevated levels of dioxins, furans, metals, arsenic and semi-volatile organic compunds in these areas. These findings were alarming to MT FWP and thereby prompted the state agency to conduct its own investigations into contaminant levels in fish populations living in the Clark Fork around the former mill site. In its tests, FWP detected dioxins and furans in all samples of rainbow trout and northern pike.
At Monday’s CFC-hosted community forum, FWP fisheries biologist Ladd Knotek and Missoula Water Quality District Superintendent Peter Nielsen explained the extent of the known contamination in the Clark Fork River, and urged attendees to spread the word about the fish consumption advisories in the Clark Fork. Nielsen explained that—despite ample signage and publicity—many people remain unaware of the human health impacts of these substances and will continue to eat the fish they catch. He noted that dioxins and furans – two compounds formed as part of the process of pulp and paper making—are exceptionally harmful to human health, and can cause cancer in humans at high levels of exposure.
At the Coalition, we view the latest findings by FWP as yet another reason to get the Smurfit-Stone site added to the National Priorities List of Superfund sites as soon as possible so that the EPA and State of Montana can implement a thorough, full-scale cleanup at the site and get rid of the dangerous contaminants currently plaguing the Clark Fork River. We expect the EPA to make its final decision regarding the listing in the spring of 2014, and will continue to monitor this critically important issue in the months to come.
In the meantime, click “Fish Consumption Guidelines” at the FWP website for tips on how to best prepare game fish to eat, and stay tuned to clarkfork.org for the latest updates.