Despite shutdown, Missoula County looks to rekindle Smurfit relationship with EPA

Missoula County will take its environmental concerns over the shuttered Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. pulp and paper mill to the Environmental Protection Agency this month in an effort to rekindle its relationship as a new project manager steps in.

But with the government shutdown now in its second week, it’s possible the meeting will be postponed, further delaying the years-long effort to rehabilitate the site for other uses and guard against feared environmental contamination.

“This Jan. 15 date may need to be pushed back because of the government shutdown,” Travis Ross, an environmental health specialist with the Missoula Valley Water Quality District, said frankly during a recent meeting with commissioners.

Still, commissioners sent a letter to Allie Archer, the new project manager at the EPA’s Montana office, offering to meet in mid-January to establish “a working relationship with EPA that fosters communication between both parties.”

“This is a good opportunity to restart a relationship and hopefully improve communication,” Ross said. “It’s also a good opportunity to reiterate the county’s concerns and discuss some specific items.”

Commissioners are looking to discuss a range of unsettled issues, including the collection and sampling of data gathered from the site last year and a flood contingency plan. An interim flood plan was in place during the 2018 season, though a full plan remains a work in progress.

Last year’s flooding also renewed concerns over the sludge ponds located on the property. Though commissioners have said progress was made when sampling was discussed last September, they’re looking for assurance that the issue will be fully addressed.

“Our fear is that ‘false negatives’ due to the density of groundwater monitoring wells will yield a false sense of ‘no further action’ warranted,” commissioners wrote in their letter. “We continue to advocate for an initial complete investigation of the landfills and sludge ponds to completion of the Risk Assessment.”

Archer has stepped in as project manager behind Sarah Sparks, who retired from the position last year. Commissioners believe that presents an opportunity to reset a relationship that has been challenged at times.

Last March, commissioners accused the EPA of failing to address both human and ecological health concerns in its site assessment. In a letter last year, the county stated that “the current risk assessments do not reflect the actual risk at the site due to insufficient testing.”

With the federal government now closed, the process again has hit a snag. Last week, the Smurfit-Stone Mill Site Community Advisory Group gathered for an update, though none was offered. Neither the EPA nor the Montana Department of Environmental Quality attended the meeting.

“People want this information,” Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Dave Schmetterling said at the meeting.