MISSOULA — If the Environmental Protection Agency wants to cut back on projects, the Missoula Valley is not the place to do it.
That was made clear to new EPA Region 8 Administrator Greg Sopkin as he and four other EPA employees sat down with Missoula County commissioners, citizen advisory group members and conservationists to discuss work on the Smurfit Stone millsite cleanup plan Wednesday afternoon.
Commissioner Josh Slotnick told Sopkin that the once-polluted Clark Fork River now adds to Missoula’s appeal and attracts many people and businesses to the area.
“Because of Superfund, that river got cleaned up,” Slotnick said. “It’s the vibrant heart of who we are. So we’re not afraid – we’re in. Let’s get it cleaned up.”
Sopkin looked at the 30 people in the Sophie Moiese room of the County Courthouse and said he was impressed by the turnout, “especially the activists.” After emphasizing that the Smurfit site was still in the early stages of the Superfund process, Sopkin said the EPA team would figure out what to do once the environmental assessment and a feasibility study were complete.
“This administration has been very focused on stopping the bureaucratic delays that have happened with a lot of Superfund sites,” Sopkin said. “We are doing what we can to clean it up as fast as we can.”
In May, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler appointed Sopkin to take over Region 8 two months after former Region 8 Administrator Doug Benevento was reassigned to be the Senior Counselor for Regional Management and State Affairs. Prior to that, Sopkin worked on communications, utilities law and energy regulation as a private attorney.
Travis Ross, Missoula County Water Quality District supervisor, gave Sopkin a history of the Smurfit Stone site and the basis of Missoula’s long interest in environmental health. Ross explained the county’s concerns about the complexity of the mill site, from all the toxins that contaminate the site and groundwater to worries about its close proximity to the Clark Fork River.
He emphasized the necessity of a thorough assessment but also the need to remove all the contaminants from the floodplain as soon as possible so the next flood won’t wash them downstream. Also, the quicker more businesses can move in to replace the mill, the better for the local economy.
“I’m happy to hear your thoughts on it, the economic part of it. But there’s real concern about the environmental assessment and how it might affect the steps,” Ross said. “If we don’t get that first step right, how does it affect down the chain?”
EPA project coordinator Ally Archer said she was working to get all the data to make sure the first step, the assessment was thorough. In the meantime, she was continuing to get input from community members on what the mill used to be like and where they’d like to see it go.
But occasionally, the site owners – also called the potentially responsible parties because they are on the hook to pay for the cleanup – have stalled the process, such as requiring fish samples to be collected a second year because exact protocol wasn’t followed in the first collection. And the EPA acquiesces to the site owners’ demands because money is on the line.
Karen Knudsen and John DeArment of the Clark Fork Coalition piggybacked on Ross’s concerns, saying that floods could become more frequent, increasing the risk of toxins washing downstream and extending the ban on eating fish caught in the river.
Sopkin said the berms were tested and found to be sound. But DeArment said the berms weren’t engineered to be lasting barriers. They barely held and had to be reinforced during the flood of 2018.
DeArment said EPA tests have already shown that the waste management area is rife with contaminants, so waiting another few years to remove them didn’t make much sense.
“Given that there’s no conceivable path forward with allowing (toxins) to stay, we hope there’s a way in some timely fashion to get busy getting that stuff out of there,” DeArment said. “In such a vast area, we know there’s a need to study it well. But in that acutely toxic area, we’d like to see as a good faith effort for the river and the community of moving toward that next phase of getting stuff out of there.”
Archer said more information was needed to ensure all the parties were onboard with the cleanup plan.
A few more commenters expressed worries about the process dragging on until it’s too late for anything to be done.
Changes in the EPA at the national level have done little to calm such fears. The Trump Administration has rolled back 23 regulations related to the EPA, including a few related to water quality. Meanwhile, industries are pressuring the EPA to reduce its groundwater cleanup standards for industrial chemicals such as PFAS.
If the EPA goes along with such efforts, standards for other chemicals related to the Smurfit site could be lessened before cleanup begins.
When the Missoula Current asked Sopkin if he would comment on whether current budget and regulatory cuts might degrade efforts at the Smurfit site, he said the EPA has a limited budget so priorities have to be identified. If an area won’t be eventually be used for housing, less decontamination is required so less effort will be made. Also ecological cleanup for fish or wildlife doesn’t meet the same high bar as residential areas.
“Many times, we don’t have infinite deep pockets with potentially responsible parties, so it’s coming out of the federal government. So we have to prioritize those funds appropriately. So we prioritize with human health,” Sopkin said.
“Water systems are the most complex. We can’t short-circuit the testing process. And, like with the fish, you have to determine is that coming from this site or did they get it somewhere else? It’s important to know that because that involves how you treat the site. So it’s very complicated.”
Sopkin said Region 8 has more of a problem with retirements than budget cuts.
Sopkin is anticipating a flat-line budget in this next fiscal year, but between 30 percent and 50 percent of the EPA workforce could retire within the next five years. Sopkin said he plans on replacing those workers, not just letting them go unfilled to save money.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org