Citizens, scientists want Superfund cleanup to begin now at former pulp mill

Recent tests showed that wastewater is seeping through the berm and two locations showed signs of dirt sloughing off the side of the berm at the former Smurfit-Stone Container pulp mill in Frenchtown. (EPA photo)

Sampling continues around the former Smurfit-Stone Container mill site in Frenchtown, but some are questioning why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency isn’t moving faster to offset risks to human health.

On Thursday evening, EPA toxicologist Brian Sanchez told the Smurfit-Stone Community Advisory Group that his team completed their fish sampling in the Clark Fork, Bitterroot and Blackfoot rivers in July, but it will be more than two months before he’s able to release any results.

That’s because the fish are still in a Denver freezer while his team tries to decide how to handle mistakes that were made during sampling. Sanchez was unwilling to elaborate on what mistakes were made.

When the EPA decides how to move forward, it will take four weeks to process the fish tissue and another three weeks to test the tissue and process the results.

Those results will hopefully provide some information about whether contamination from the former pulp mill and linerboard plant is affecting fish downstream.

The pulp-making process creates PCBs, dioxins and furans, cancer-causing agents that ended up in the plant’s wastewater ponds. The disposal may have occurred on a more regular basis before the 1980s, when Montana didn’t require permits and testing for wastewater discharge.

“This data will then be useful for the human health risk assessment in order to determine whether levels in these fish might pose an unacceptable risk to humans that are consuming fish from this system,” Sanchez said. “This should also be useful to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks since there is a fish-consumption advisory on the Clark Fork River that was based on a relatively small data set. This is a better data set.”

During the first half of July, the team collected northern pike at two sites – the Bitterroot River near Lolo and the Clark Fork below Frenchtown – and rainbow trout at seven sites, two of which were downstream from the mill.

Pike may provide the best data because they are long-lived and therefore should have the highest concentration of toxins, if toxins are in the river. They represent the worst case, Sanchez said.

The fish might not provide the best data, however. The sampling took place later in the season than FWP recommended and the team wasn’t able to catch the planned five fish at each of the sites.

Also both pike and rainbow trout can travel long distances throughout the year, so they don’t necessarily represent conditions at the sites where they were caught. Sanchez said his team tried to compensate for that by spacing the sampling locations relatively far apart.

Still, FWP fish biologist Dave Schmetterling said the sampling locations may not have been well-chosen.

“That’s been a big issue with the trustees and working with the EPA. We wanted to accurately characterize what the background levels are in the environment versus what might be related to the site,” he said. “This study is just one of hopefully many to assemble multiple lines of evidence that might help us understand this question. It’s very complicated.”

Later in the meeting, as Pacific Western Technologies engineer Larry Dears was explaining samples of the former wastewater ponds, which have been shown to leak toxins because they have no impermeable barriers beneath them, Clark Fork Coalition science director John DeArment asked why the EPA couldn’t start cleanup efforts on the site – namely the initial feasibility study – while the investigation of the extent of the contamination drags out.

“The EPA and the DEQ have already acknowledged that the waste management area is a problem, that it’s contaminating groundwater, that the status quo is not a long-term option, that some cleanup is necessary. Why delay that for many more years while the remedial investigation continues?” DeArment said.

EPA representative Allie Archer said she had to follow the federal Superfund process – known as CERCLA – and it hopefully wouldn’t take “many years.”

Dears said some samples did exceed federal limits, but there was “nothing particularly dangerous.” He said that just looking at it, the environment looks healthy. That comment prompted several challenges from ecologists in the advisory group so Dears backed it off.

“We’re not saying it’s good, or that we’re not going to take care of it. But we’re at a point in the process where we’re trying to determine how bad it is,” Dears said.

Finally, the EPA released a 700-page evaluation of the berms separating the site from the Clark Fork River, but as with several recent studies, the agency isn’t making it easy for people to read the study in time to comment.

The public must submit comments by Sept. 14, but few in the advisory group had been able to read the report.

A summary of the findings indicated that the EPA found no risk of the Clark Fork River overtopping the berm. But three of eight locations sampled showed that water was seeping through the berm and two locations showed signs of dirt sloughing off the side of the berm.

“One of the concerns is not overtopping but lateral erosion of the berm,” Schmetterling said.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com