Engineers say Smurfit berms are holding, but being monitored

Posted at 9:27 PM, May 16, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-16 23:27:46-04

FRENCHTOWN – Engineers say they’ve seen no evidence that floodwaters are causing berms at the old Smurfit mill site to fail. But they are keeping a close eye on the situation as the Clark Fork continues to rise and fall.

As MTN News first reported last week, Missoula County is worried how the berms will handle the high water, with a potential breach that could send large quantities of contaminants and toxins from decades of mill operations downstream. But so far, engineers say the berms are holding.

"They noted no significant, or no imminent if you will, threats of failure. There are a couple of spots they’re keeping an eye on. So the plan since then is to do daily inspections," said Missoula County Environmental Health Specialist Travis Ross.

Since the mill closed in 2009, both the county and the Clark Fork Coalition have complained to the state and the Environmental Protection Agency that the berms which separate the old cooling ponds from the river could fail in a major flood. This current flooding is certainly in that category, with the Clark Fork hitting its highest level in a hundred years last week.

But Ross says even if the berms hold, there are still tremendous pressures from this high water. 

"You know, you get different conditions, different amounts of pressure of course. Those pressures coming down on groundwater as the pressure of the river is pushing down. So, definitely, there can be different conditions on the levees or berms at different river conditions."

Ross says the EPA has asked the "responsible parties" or past and current owners of the Smurfit property to monitor the berms daily.