MISSOULA – Pressed by the highest flooding in years, the US Environmental Protection Agency has now developed a new plan for dealing with the possibility of contamination entering the Clark Fork River.
The concern that the earthen berms that separate the mill’s former cooling ponds from the Clark Fork River has been voiced by Missoula County and the Clark Fork Coalition for the past several years.
Locals have been especially worried since the mill stopped operations in 2009 because they don’t know who’s responsible for maintenance of the berms, and the contaminants that are behind the structures.
When the Clark Fork River started to flood last month, the county was immediately concerned the berms could fail, sending heavy metals and other toxins downstream to Frenchtown. The county pressed EPA for sampling, but also for a contingency plan to deal with the threat.
The EPA has now released an "Interim Contingency Plan" for the Smurfit site. Among other things, it calls for daily inspections whenever the river is tops 11-feet, a priority system for action in case the exterior berm is breached, sampling if there is a failure, and recommendations for a "final contingency plan" if there is a major berm failure.
“Those are primarily in the core of the facility centered around the ponds, the sludge ponds and the landfills that surround the 140 acres, approximately, of materials," said Missoula Co. Environmental Health Specialist Travis Ross. "It’s important to note that there are multiple ponds on site. One recommendation of the plan is that they stockpile some material and get some contractors lined-up, should a breach be imminent.”
Ross says the county has been “frustrated with EPA”, but feels a meeting held on Thursday was productive in expressing the local concerns.