With emergency sampling complete, EPA promises more tests at Smurfit

Posted at 4:48 PM, Jun 08, 2018
and last updated 2018-06-08 18:48:26-04

FRENCHTOWN – The Environmental Protection Agency says new samples showing contaminants didn’t leave the Smurfit Stone mill site during the recent flooding aren’t the only tests we’ll be seeing this summer. 

The emergency sampling was conducted last month after groundwater "boils" created concerns that there was some mixing of the floodwaters on the Clark Fork with the interior of the berms, where samples have shown contamination from decades of mill operations. The fear was the water collected in the old cooling ponds could be carrying dioxins and heavy metals into the river, especially where a dark plume of water was spotted during the height of the flooding.

But Project Manager Sara Sparks told a community meeting in Frenchtown Thursday night samples showed some "good news".

"What we were looking at, is there an emergency with the tea-colored water moving from the site to the river? What we found is that the levels are very low, both for dioxins and for heavy metals," Sparks said. "We’ll continue to complete the studies at the site and what is actually happening there."

When the Clark Fork was reaching record levels, Missoula County and the Clark Fork Coalition were worried the berms, which have seen limited maintenance since the mill closed in 2009, could be breached. Sparks was also worried about the flooding impacts and I asked her if the tests results were a "relief".

"I was very relieved. My job is to protect human health and the environment. We need to collect the data to determine what’s going on and do we need to do something. So as we look as these results today we say we have some problems. We have to study them. But there isn’t an emergency to human health. So yes, I’m very happy."

For the county’s part, the clean samples are also a relief. But there’s still an interest in more extensive testing, and studying of the complicated hydrology along the river. 

"And we’re happy that it was done. We’re happy that levels of dioxin don’t seem to be very high at this moment," said Missoula County Environmental Health Specialist Travis Ross. "But yeah, data tells a story and it’s just going to take a little bit of time to look at it, and study it in the context of the rest of the data. Where’s data missing?"

And Sparks says there’s more than water samples coming. She says by the end of the month we should see the first report on the integrity of the berms themselves.

"That’s correct on that berm study," Sparks said. "And we should a draft study out at the end of June for people to take a look at and comment on."