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 non-certified, non-engineered, earthen berm. In 2018, the berm withstood a 30-year flood — the biggest flood since the ponds were built — but not without emergency action to reinforce a failing portion of the berm and a release of contaminated stormwater into the Clark Fork River. Eventually, we’ll see a flood big enough to overwhelm the berm. 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, but that listing never happened. Instead, EPA offered the potentially responsible parties (PRPs) the option of a voluntary cleanup “carrot” before they wielded the Superfund “stick”. The voluntary approach, called an Administrative Order on Consent (AOC), made the 3,200-acre site eligible for the type of deep study and comprehensive cleanup afforded by the federal Superfund program, while still requiring the polluters to pay for cleanup, and still providing for EPA oversight and public involvement. Our hope at the time was that the AOC could be a reasonable and timelier path to cleanup, though five years later, we’ve seen very little progress.
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, including M2Green Redevelopment, LLC; International Paper Company; and WestRock CP, LLC. Collectively, these companies have extraordinary financial resources and a clear legal and moral obligation to make things right at Smurfit after more than half a century of profitable paper manufacturing. How’s that going? So far, it’s been excruciatingly slow. According to EPA, we are currently in the third year of the second step of an eight-phase Superfund process, with actual cleanup still possibly more than a decade away. As highly hazardous industrial toxics continue to pollute groundwater and the river every day, this pace is unacceptable. We must begin NOW to clean up Smurfit-Stone.
Where should cleanup begin?
We think the obvious place to start is at the most acutely toxic portion of the former mill site — the 140 acre waste management area. For decades, the mill produced enormous quantities of waste and residual sludge left over from the pulping process. Almost all of the site’s solid waste — 54 tons a day of sludge at peak operations — was place into unlined and largely unregulated dumps and ponds now covering roughly 140 acres. Much of this waste is located in or near the floodplain of the Clark Fork River allowing hazardous materials to continually to leach into groundwater and the river.
Both state and federal officials have long been aware of the environmental hazards posed by these poorly-sited dumps. In fact, the problems posed by the dumps and the regulatory failure surrounding their operation and closure were detailed in a 2016 letter from Missoula County Water Quality District. Sampling data gathered by environmental consultants on behalf of the PRPs indicate that the dumps contain a dangerous mixture of heavy metal and other contaminants, including cadmium, mercury, arsenic, selenium, lead, dioxins and furans. More recent sampling corroborates these findings and shows alarming levels of contaminants, including manganese levels that exceed the proposed state standard by more than 500 times. The Montana Natural Resource Damage Program, part of the Montana Department of Justice, has also identified the dumps as a significant source of pollution to groundwater at the site and to the Clark Fork River.
To make matters worse, the dumps are unlined and almost entirely unregulated during the lifetime of the mill, and as a result, dangerous materials continue to seep into groundwater. As the data reveals, and officials with Montana DEQ have acknowledged, the unlined sludge ponds and dumps will continue to contaminate groundwater and the river as long as they are full of hazardous material and in contact with groundwater. This is why officials with the local water quality district concluded that the only effective remedy would be “removal of the materials from contact with groundwater and proximity to the Clark Fork River and its floodplain [….] [a]nd disposal in a properly designed landfill with cap, liner and leachate collection, isolated from groundwater and surface water.” (2016 letter from Missoula County Water Quality District)
Given the data already collected characterizing the dumps and sludge ponds (combined with the regulatory failure surrounding operation and closure of these areas), the CFC believes EPA should not delay any further in taking action.
What you can do now.
After decades of citizen action and tens of millions invested in restoration, the hard-working Clark Fork River is finally on the mend. And yet, the contaminated Smurfit-Stone site continues to pollute the river we’ve all worked so hard to clean up. It’s time to do something about it. We’re launching a campaign to Help Clean Up Smurfit-Stone. Click here to learn more and take these three actions now:
- CONTACT THE EPA: Tell EPA to take action now to clean up Smurfit. Talking points to help you contact the EPA.
- SIGN OUR LETTER OF SUPPORT: I support the cleanup of waste dumps at the former Smurfit-Stone mill site. Sign Petition here.
- SHARE, ACTIVATE & ENGAGE: Short on time? Follow us, share a Smurfit-Stone post, and track the cleanup.
- LISTEN & LEARN: Check out our podcast “Toxic: The Mess at Smurfit-Stone“. It is a narration-and-interview-style podcast featuring local experts and elected officials talking all things Smurfit-Stone.
- HAVE QUESTIONS?: Read our Smurfit Frequently Asked Questions page.
- STAY UP TO DATE: Visit our campaign page to see how to stay up to date.
Let’s do this.
Clean Smurfit Now
Resources and Links
- Smurfit Frequently Asked Questions
- Talking points to help you contact the EPA
- Missoulian article about the 140 acre hot spot – 8/8/20
- Peter Neilson’s Op-Ed – 8/7/20
- CFC Letter to the EPA – 8/5/20
- DEQ Letter to EPA – 7/25/16
- Missoulian Op-Ed – 5/31/20
- 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
- Smurfit-Stone Community Advisory Group Facebook page