The path forward is clear: Clean up the dumps. Remove the berms. Restore the floodplain.
Together, we can make the Clark Fork healthy again at the Smurfit site.
THE SMURFIT-STONE PULP MILL operated on the banks of the Clark Fork River near Frenchtown from 1957 to 2010, discharging enormous amounts of wastewater into the river. More than a decade after the mill closed, the 3,200-acre industrial site is still leaching harmful chemicals into the river and our aquifer. It’s time to clean it up.
The Clark Fork River supplies some of the richest habitat in the lower 48 and is a regional boating and angling destination. Throughout European settlement and industrial development, the Clark Fork was the backbone of large-scale enterprises that left a legacy of pollution and ecological damage. Community members, advocates, tribes, and government officials are among many who have been helping to heal the river, however, the shuttered Smurfit-Stone pulp mill threatens to reverse the gains made. Sitting along four miles of the Clark Fork downstream of Missoula, Montana, Smurfit-Stone is poisoning the groundwater and river with dioxins and heavy metals. These pollutants threaten fish and wildlife and put the health of Tribal subsistence fishers at risk. Through federal Superfund law, the polluters are responsible for cleaning up the site.
One of America’s Most Endangered Rivers
The Clark Fork was named to American Rivers’ Most Endangered Rivers list of 2023. Coming in at #5, the river is a ticking time bomb due to contaminated waste pollution from the old pulp mill. Harmful toxins from an old pulp mill have been contaminating the Clark Fork River for years. Tell the EPA it is past time to enforce the cleanup of these industrial contaminants!
- DEMAND THE EPA TAKE ACTION Tell EPA to clean up Smurfit. Talking points and EPA contact info here.
- SIGN THE PETITION I support the cleanup of waste dumps at the former Smurfit-Stone mill site. Sign here.
- LISTEN Check out our podcast “Toxic: The Mess at Smurfit-Stone” and subscribe for new episode alerts.
Public Health Risk: Toxins in water, sediments, and fish
After the mill closed, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) preliminary study found cancer-causing chemicals in the site’s sludge ponds, groundwater, and adjacent river sediments. These include dioxins, furans, and arsenic.
Dioxins interfere with humans’ immune, hormonal and reproductive systems. Plus, they bio-accumulate in the food chain, becoming more concentrated in larger species of fish and birds.
In 2013 Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks (FWP) found dioxins, furans and PCBs in sampled fish. To protect public health, they issued a fish consumption advisory for northern pike and rainbow trout caught in the Clark Fork near the site. In late 2020, after analyzing newer fish tissue samples and finding even more of these toxic substances, FWP expanded this advisory to a 148-mile stretch of the Clark Fork (from the Bitterroot confluence to the Flathead), and included all species and all size classes of fish. Smurfit may not be the only source of these pollutants, but based on what contaminants have been found on site, and for sheer pollution-generating potential, it’s clearly the biggest concern. (Listen to our May 2021 podcast about the new fish consumption advisory HERE.)
Ecological Risk: Flood of contaminants
The most acutely toxic portion of site are the waste and sludge dumps. Unlined, largely unregulated, and full of hazardous substances, these dumps sit in the floodplain of the Clark Fork River. Their toxic contents are in contact with the aquifer and slowly leaking pollutants into groundwater that flows to the river. (Learn more about the dumps in “Toxic” podcast #1.)
In 2016 Missoula County’s Health Department conducted a detailed investigation of the dumps, and called on EPA and DEQ to remove the waste to a repository that’s high and dry and out of harm’s way. But the County never received a formal response.
Although there is an old earthen 4-mile berm that runs the length of the site along the Clark Fork, it does not prevent contamination from the dumps from migrating through groundwater pathways to the river. So far, the berm has prevented Clark Fork River water from inundating the site. However, the berms are unmaintained, unlicensed, and deteriorating. In fact, during a 30-year flood event in 2018 a portion of the berm was compromised, requiring emergency reinforcement and sending a plume of pollution downriver.
The question is not “if” but “when” we’ll see a flood big enough to completely overwhelm the berm. This would release a slew of harmful toxins that persist in the food chain, and re-deposit the contaminants for 100 miles downstream. We cannot allow that to happen.
American Superfund progress
As a proposed Superfund site, EPA is overseeing investigation and cleanup at Smurfit-Stone. But the pace has been glacially slow — at the current speed, it could be 10, 20, or 30 years before we see cleanup, if we see it at all.
We have enough data now for EPA to stop asking if the dumps should be cleaned up, and start figuring out how to do it. EPA has full authority to carve out a smaller unit at the site and start targeted cleanup there, while continuing scientifically sound investigations of other parts of the property. (CFC and independent reviewers have found the science and assumptions behind recent EPA studies to be deeply flawed.)
Further, EPA must compel the responsible parties to make things right at Smurfit. These responsible parties (M2Green Redevelopment, LLC, International Paper Company, and WestRock CP, LLC) have a clear legal and moral obligation to pay for investigation and cleanup — a process they agreed to back five years ago. Furthermore, International Paper and WestRock are two of the world’s leading producers of packing, pulp, and paper. They have the financial resources to do right by the river and the people, fish, and wildlife it sustains.
After decades of profitable operations, the clean-up bill is due at Smurfit and it’s time for the responsible parties to step up and pay it.
The path forward: Clean. Smurfit. Now.
In 2020 we launched a public campaign to spur progress toward the clear path forward: Clean up the dumps, remove the berms and restore the floodplain.
The Clark Fork Coalition was first formed in 1985 by people concerned about the Smurfit-Stone mill dumping toxins into the river as part of its operations. Thanks to their public advocacy, the mill cleaned up its act.
We need people to stand up again TODAY for the river to protect it from hazardous chemicals. While we wait for the information that will help us properly clean up the entire site, that doesn’t preclude action now at the dumps and berm. We need to fix the places most at-risk.
As for restoring and redeveloping the area post-cleanup, Superfund law also grants certain entities “trusteeship” over potentially harmed natural resources. At Smurfit those Trustees include the US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Forest Service, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Kalispel Tribe, and the Montana Natural Resource Damage Program. These Trustees are going to conduct a Natural Resource Damage Assessment to determine whether natural resources have been injured or lost. This will set the stage — and may provide funding — for any restoration needed after the entire site is cleaned up. (Read the Trustees’ Preassessment Screen HERE.)
The Smurfit site presents a rare opportunity to protect and improve water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, and flood storage of the Clark Fork River over a big expanse of land. Let’s get started. It’s time.
- American Rivers’ Most Endangered Rivers 2023 Report
- FAQs about the Smurfit site
- Channel Migration Zone Study: Findings related to Smurfit-Stone site
- EPA website and progress reports on Smurfit-Stone Mill Site
- Fish Consumption Advisory near site from Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (2020 advisory)
- Facebook page for the Smurfit-Stone Community Advisory Group
- Preassessment Screen of the site, its pollution, and impacts on natural resources (report by site’s State, Federal, and Tribal Trustees)
- “Toxic” podcast
- Missoulian opinion from CFC on toxic fish at Smurfit – March 2021
- Missoula Current article on EPA release of Draft Human Health Risk Assessment – Feb. 2021
- Missoulian article on updated fish consumption advisory – Dec. 2020
- Missoulian opinion from Hellgate Hunters and Anglers – Sept. 2020
- Missoulian article about the 140 acre hot spot – Aug. 2020
- Missoulian opinion from Peter Nielsen – Aug. 2020
- NBC Montana story on floodwaters potentially releasing Smurfit toxins – May 2020
- Missoulian opinion from Karen Knudsen – May 2020
- CFC ‘Riffles Field Update’ on Smurfit – Fall 2018
Requests for Action
- CFC comment letter on Baseline Ecological Risk Assessment (BERA) and Human Health Risk Assessment (HHRA) – Feb. 2021
- Abt Associates comments on BERA – Feb. 2021 (cited in CFC Feb. 2021 letter)
- CFC follow-up letter to EPA re: feasibility study to clean up waste dumps – Nov 2020 (EPA response)
- CFC comments to EPA on the groundwater conceptual site model – Oct. 2020
- Missoula Valley Water Quality District comments to EPA on the groundwater conceptual site model
- CFC request to EPA for feasibility study to clean up most polluted areas – Aug. 2020 (EPA response)
- Missoula County history of correspondence with EPA 2011–2017
- CFC appeal to MT DEQ objecting to renewed permit issued for M2Green – 2014