Remove the toxins. Restore the river.

Smurfit stone mill site on the clark fork river
December 1, 2015

We’re on the cusp of turning a wasteland back into a waterway at the old Smurfit-Stone Mill Site.

Thirty years ago, the Clark Fork Coalition was founded by a group of citizens concerned about pollution from a pulp and paper mill just west of Missoula. We asked the state to say “no” when the mill wanted to dump waste in the river year-round—and won.

That was back in 1985. Three decades later, the Coalition is still fighting pollution problems that stem from the now-defunct mill site.

The Smurfit-Stone pulp and paper mill operated from 1957 to 2010 on the banks of the Clark Fork River. After the mill closed, the EPA investigated the site in 2012 and discovered carcinogenic dioxins as well as metals and arsenic in the wastewater sludge ponds, groundwater, and river sediments. Enough pollutants, in fact, that EPA headed down the path of adding the shuttered mill property to the National Priority (aka, “Superfund”).

However, the agency hit the pause button on Superfund designation to give the potentially responsible parties a chance to develop a voluntary cleanup plan. It’s the “carrot” vs. the “stick” approach. In theory, the voluntary approach could be every bit as good for the river as a full-blown Superfund process. It would still entail EPA oversight and public involvement, but could end up being a timelier, less contentious path to cleanup.

Smurfit stone mill site on the clark fork riverIn mid-November, the EPA announced just such an agreement with the responsible parties, including M2Green, WestRock, and International Paper (the latter two companies hold what remains of former mill owners Smurfit Stone and Champion International). The agreement, called an Administrative Order on Consent (AOC), lays out a process that is essentially the same as Superfund. There is opportunity for public involvement and deadlines for action from the responsible parties. The first phase of a remedial investigation began a week after the agreement was signed and should be finished by the end of December. We’re relieved that the ball is finally rolling forward on progress toward a cleanup.

The remedial investigation expands on the earlier EPA sampling. The goal is to more fully characterize the extent of contamination in soils, groundwater, river sediment and surface water. The AOC specifies 3 areas within the site (operable units), and requires sampling based on the historic use of the property. Out of the 3,150 acres at the site, 1,200 are agricultural that were never used for industrial purposes. Those will be sampled primarily for air deposition in surface soils. The industrial core area covers 255 acres that will be sampled more thoroughly at the surface and at depth. The remaining 1,700 acres comprise waste disposal areas, including landfills, sludge ponds, and treated wastewater ponds adjacent to the river. These areas are also being sampled more thoroughly – at the surface and at depth – including groundwater. The responsible party’s contractor is also sampling river water and sediments upstream and downstream of the site.

What comes next? After results of the sampling are in by February or so, we’ll review and work with Missoula County, MT DEQ, and the EPA to identify additional sampling needs for another round of sampling to identify cleanup targets. We already see some holes in the current sampling plan that we’re passing along to the agencies for attention. Hopefully, all the characterization work can be completed in 2016, and work can begin on a feasibility study to design a cleanup strategy. We’ll be following the process closely and getting information out so that people can weigh in.

beautiful river scene lower clark forkThis complex spans four miles of the Clark Fork riverfront upstream of Frenchtown, including over 1,170 acres of what was historically the Clark Fork’s floodplain. The site has enormous potential for conservation-based redevelopment and CFC has encouraged a visioning process among stakeholders that maximizes public benefits and ecological values. But that has to start with comprehensive cleanup of dangerous, cancer-causing industrial contamination that sits in unlined settling ponds behind uncertified levees and is migrating through groundwater to the river.

To get us there, the Coalition plans to take the following steps in the coming months:

  • Engage top-level policy makers and diverse stakeholders to pursue a thorough investigation and comprehensive cleanup plan for the site.
  • Steer conversation about redevelopment and conservation options in order to develop a collaborative, community-driven vision for the site.
  • Explore the feasibility of a State Natural Resource Damages claim under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) as a way to achieve the restoration vision.
  • Stop DEQ from issuing a wastewater discharge permit for the site that would allow more algae-causing nitrogen and phosphorous to be pumped into the river than the entire city of Missoula contributes today. (We expect a ruling on our court case to void the discharge permit by early 2016.)

It’s time to fix these pollution problems for goodWe have an amazing and rare opportunity to protect the river, restore clean water, and improve fish and wildlife habitat on a large expanse of land. This work will benefit watershed residents for generations to come.

Let’s close the chapter on the Smurfit-Stone Mill Site with a happy ending—preferably before another 30 years goes by.

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