Contamination and Challenges at Smurfit-Stone
For over 50 years, an active paper and pulp mill provided jobs and income to hundreds of residents in Missoula and Frenchtown. By the time it closed in 2010, the site had evolved into a 3,200-acre industrial complex that included 900 acres of settling, sludge, and wastewater ponds — many located in the historic floodplain of the Clark Fork River.
The problem: Toxins in groundwater, river sediments, and fish
Following the mill’s closing, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) collected preliminary samples of soil and water, and the results of the study were released in September 2012. The analysis of contamination shows cancer-causing chemicals in sludge ponds, groundwater, and river sediments adjoining the millsite, posing a threat to human health and aquatic life.
As detailed in EPA’s Analytical Results Report, soils in the mill’s sludge ponds contain dioxins and furans as well as several heavy metals. In addition, shallow groundwater beneath the sludge ponds and wastewater storage ponds shows elevated levels of these toxic substances, and this groundwater flows toward and into the river. It’s not surprising then that dioxins and furans were also found in Clark Fork River sediments adjacent to the mill site.
These compounds are harmful to human health and hazardous to the environment. Dioxins, in particular, are potent carcinogenic substances that can damage human immune systems and interfere with hormonal and reproductive function. They bio-accumulate in the food chain, becoming more concentrated in larger species, from fish to birds to humans — they are among the “dirty dozen” of worst toxic substances in the world.
Unfortunately, additional sampling by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks in 2013 confirmed the presence of dioxins, furans, and PCBs in northern pike and rainbow trout. These findings prompted the agency to issue a “do not eat” advisory for northern pike and a “four meal per month” limit for rainbow trout caught from the Clark Fork’s confluence with the Bitterroot River near Missoula to the confluence with the Flathead River near Paradise. While the advisory is hardly a surprise given decades of industry at the property, the findings are still a wake-up call that clean water and public health are at risk.
Compounding the problem is the fact that much of this area is within the 100-year floodplain, and some of the wastewater ponds actually sit over what was once the Clark Fork River channel. Old air photos from 1955 — taken before the mill was built — show meandering traces of the river flowing through the area where some of the ponds now sit. Now, the only thing standing between these sludge ponds and the Clark Fork is an earthen berm. In 1997, the berm withstood a 30-year flood — the biggest flood since the ponds were built — but it’s anyone’s guess if they’d hold for a larger event. The potential for further damage to the river is a real possibility.
The solution: Clean the dumps, remove the berm, and restore the floodplain
In May 2013, the EPA proposed adding the Smurfit-Stone mill property near Missoula to the National Priorities List (NPL) of Superfund sites. If finalized, this action makes the 3,200-acre site eligible for the type of deep study and comprehensive cleanup afforded by the federal Superfund program.
Established in 1980 to address abandoned hazardous waste sites, the federal Superfund program allows the EPA to clean up pollution and compel the responsible parties—when they still exist — to reimburse cleanup costs.
In the case of a cleanup at the Smurfit-Stone site, there are multiple responsible parties. A small Illinois-based investment group, called Green Investment Group, Inc. (recently re-named M2Green), bought the mill in 2011, along with its environmental liabilities, from a bankrupt Smurfit-Stone, while the company’s assets were scooped up by RockTenn, North America’s second largest producer of corrugated and consumer packaging and its largest operator of paper recycling. In 2014, the EPA sent letters to all parties who could be potentially responsible for cleanup, informing them of liability and asking some of them, including Rock-Tenn, to begin a remedial investigation.
M2Green and its investment partners at Wakefield Development have reached out to CFC, Missoula County, and the state of Montana to share notes on vision and concerns. Meanwhile, RockTenn has put money forward for additional sampling at the site, although this is being done separately from the Superfund process.
Superfund listing has not yet occurred, but EPA is offering the potentially responsible parties the option of a voluntary cleanup “carrot” before they wield the Superfund “stick”. We believe that a voluntary approach, called an Administrative Order on Consent (AOC), could be just as good as and possibly better than a full-blown Superfund process. An AOC would still require the polluter to pay for cleanup, and it would still provide for EPA oversight and public involvement. Our thinking is that this could be a reasonable and timelier path to cleanup. Regardless of whether the cleanup is run through Superfund or an AOC, we’ll be working to help community members and public decision-makers make sense of EPA’s findings, bring options into better focus, and advocate for the most thorough cleanup possible.
New challenges: Working on two fronts
Interestingly, the Clark Fork Coalition was first founded in 1985 in response to problems at Smurfit-Stone. At that time, the former owner at the mill, Champion International, submitted a request to dump pollutants year-round into the Clark Fork River — and a group of concerned citizens jumped into action. The newly minted CFC sat down with the then-owners to fix the waste dumping permit and protect the Clark Fork River.
But fast-forward 30 years and it’s deja vu all over again. A renewed wastewater discharge permit was recently issued for the Smurfit-Stone property, meaning there’s yet another complication compounding the mess of toxic contamination that’s already troubling this site.
The renewed permit, issued by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to new owner M2Green, would allow just as much algae-causing nitrogen and phosphorous to be pumped into the river as a fully-functioning paper mill — a mill that no longer exists. The plant will never again produce paper because of a non-compete agreement added to the buy-sell when Smurfit was sold, and M2Green has since demolished or sold the papermaking infrastructure. Furthermore, the permit was issued for a wind-turbine manufacturing plant — something that does not even exist.
We believe that DEQ should have canceled the permit instead of issuing a renewed permit to a non-functioning, non-existent plant. When new industry or other development locates to this site, they should simply apply for a new permit – for a real rather than hypothetical use. We believe this permit renewal sets a bad precedent, which is why we’re filing an appeal calling on DEQ to do right by the river and do permitting correctly in a way that protects the innumerable gains for clean water that have been achieved on the Clark Fork over the past several decades. In October 2014, CFC, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and Missoula County filed a lawsuit challenging the DEQ’s decision to issue permit for a nonexistent company to pollute the river at this site. In August 2017, the court decided in our favor voiding a permit to pollute the Clark Fork River at the former Smurfit-Stone mill site. The case is a big victory and a wake-up call to DEQ that – as guardian of the public’s water – the agency cannot put the needs of the polluter over the needs of the river.
With rail, power, and water infrastructure in place, there are myriad possibilities for light industry down the road at the former Smurfit-Stone mill site. Plus, the site boasts prime agricultural lands and hundreds of riverside acres that could offer a variety of uses, including potential for restored wetlands, riparian habitat, and even parklands.
But the first item to tackle must be the removal of hazardous substances from the floodplain. We’ll also want to ensure that any new wastewater permits appropriately match the anticipated new uses at the site and ultimately also protect the tremendous restoration gains that have been made to-date on the Clark Fork River.
Resources and Links
- EPA website for Smurfit-Stone Mill
- EPA Progress Report webpage
- Smurfit-Results Fact Sheet
- EPA Analytics Results Report for Smurfit Stone
- CFC Appeal to MT DEQ objecting to renewed permit issued for M2Green
- Fish Consumption Advisory from Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks: Results of Preliminary Sampling
- EPA story map about the berms along the Clark Fork River
- Smurfit-Stone Community Advisory Group Facebook page