EPA presses to get jump on Frenchtown industrial site’s cleanup

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday outlined its intent to test and remove known contaminants from a former industrial site west of Missoula and develop further plans to monitor other portions of the property.

In doing so, the agency said it was under a tight deadline to complete the work before winter puts any cleanup off for another year.

“The situation is, if we’re going to get this work done this year, we need to move very quickly,” said Sarah Sparks, the remedial project manager with the EPA. “What we’ve heard from the public is that they want us to move very quickly on this site.”

After recent testing, Sparks said, the EPA found elevated levels of PCBs in the soil at the former Smurfit Stone Container Corp. pulp and paper mill west of Missoula. It also found traces of manganese in one well and signs of oil in several production wells.

The draft of several proposed work plans will be released in roughly two weeks, giving stakeholders 14 days to review and submit comments. But the tight turnaround prompted several stakeholders to dispute the timeline, suggesting it didn’t allow room to vet the technical details and offer meaningful comments.

“In order to ensure meaningful coordination with trustees, we really need more than two weeks to review these documents,” said Katherine Haque-Hausrath, an attorney with the state’s Natural Resource Damage Program in Helena. “Two weeks in the middle of summer to review several documents at the same time isn’t meaningful coordination.”

Peter Nielsen, supervisor of the Missoula Valley Water Quality District, agreed, suggesting the EPA would likely have the documents in hand well before it released them to stakeholders for the two-week review.

And while the groundwater monitoring plan is already taking place, Nielsen said, stakeholders haven’t had a chance to comment.

“It’s essentially nullifying our ability to participate,” he said. “It’s an issue I feel deserves further discussion.”

Sparks said she sympathized with concerns over the abbreviated schedule, but said the EPA was under a tight deadline, one partially imposed by the public, which has waited years for action on the shuttered site.

Sparks said the EPA began groundwater monitoring this spring to ensure it coincided with high flows in the Clark Fork River. Had the agency missed that opportunity, she said, it would have had to wait another year.

“We’ve had short turnaround time on these documents ourselves,” said Sparks. “To meet the time frame and the public’s concern, we believe it’s important to complete these tasks in the near term. It’s the schedule we need to put in place to move the site forward.”

Sparks said much of the initial inspections laid to rest some concerns, including the stability of the berms protecting the site from the Clark Fork River. That work plan will also be released this month, detailing the full scale of a berm study planned this fall.

Results from three deep monitoring wells will also be released to stakeholders this month, as will general groundwater samples coinciding with high water.

“There’s a couple of other issues with groundwater we’re looking at,” said Sparks. “We had one well with elevated manganese. It’s an isolated well and we’re looking at resampling that and trying to determine why we’re seeing manganese in that well. We’ll continue to do that in the monitoring plan.”

The former pulp and paper mill began operating in 1957 before closing in 2010. The potentially responsible parties – those companies that must pay for any Superfund cleanup at the site – include M2Green, which now owns the property, and former owners Westrock and International Paper.