FRENCHTOWN – Missoula County officials say it could be a couple of weeks before they know whether contaminated water is leaching from the old Smurfit Stone mill site into the flood-swollen Clark Fork River.
But they’re hoping to get test results that will help them keep the public informed about whether there is a serious environmental problem.
Since MTN News first reported on this story a couple of weeks ago, the tons of high water rushing by the Smurfit berms has eased somewhat and while the berms which separate the rivers from the old cooling ponds appear to be holding, concern is building a problem may have developed at the downstream corner of the lagoons.
In a video, you can see how contractors re-enforced the berm known as "13-A" with additional fill material. But we also noticed right away there’s some discoloration in the water where groundwater "boils" showed up on the lagoon side last week.
While county officials say the dark "stain" is "tannin", or discoloration likely caused by wood and vegetation debris, it could be an indicator of problems.
"There’s some complicated hydrogeology going on there that we believe those interactions are still occurring, showing material leaving the site entering surface water," said Missoula City-County Environmental Health Specialist Travis Ross. "That’s another area where we’ve become concern, and want to know what’s in that material."
With the risk of heavy metals and dioxins from decades of mill operations being released downriver, the US Environmental Protection Agency was collecting water samples Wednesday.
"They will be sent to a lab where, at this point, we’re expecting a couple of weeks turnaround, hoping for something sooner. In addition, the county will likely collect some of its own samples," Ross explained.
During the press conference, Ross emphasized that Missoula County is depending on EPA to deploy any contingency plans if it turns out there is a toxic leak.
"Floodwaters are high. We’re seeing the interactions. We’re not sure what’s in the water. We don’t want to alarm anybody. But we want to be prudent too. and take samples when we’re seeing these interactions and be able to answer the public when they have questions about what’s leaving the site," Ross said.
Engineers have also taken elevation readings as they try and measure whether the river or the lagoons are higher and if that’s creating leakage.