MISSOULA – The US Environmental Protection Agency says it will consider reports of contaminated barrels at the old Smurfit Stone mill site.
But EPA officials have told Missoula County leaders they need to look for clues to the barrels existence and location through more groundwater samples.
Reports of the waste barrels at the mill’s landfill first surfaced a couple of years ago when Missoula County obtained pictures from former mill workers. But the exact location, the number of barrels, and what they might contain, remains a mystery.
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During a high-level meeting Wednesday, Missoula County commissioners and other county leaders pressed EPA and Montana Department of Environmental Quality to learn more about the barrels as the agencies expand groundwater sampling.
“These containers are not going to remain hermetically sealed in perpetuity forever likely. They will rust through or rupture at some point,” Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said.
“Because we could go out and start digging and if you didn’t find an intact drum someone could say ‘why didn’t you dig there? Why didn’t you dig there’?” EPA Superfund Unit Manager Joe Vranka said.
“The idea isn’t necessarily to go out and try and show that either there are no drums out there of that there are drums out there. The idea is to try and get a reasonable characterization of what’s in that landfill.”
With so much resting on groundwater samples, the county continues to press for more wells to test the deep aquifer.
“We don’t know much about the deep aquifer. I think we need to know a lot more about it. I think the hydrogeologists need to know a lot more about it in order to be able to model it,” commented Ross Miller with the Missoula County Board of Health. “So basically I’m advocating for more deep wells. I think we’ve been saying this for three, four, five years now. More deep wells and more deep well data.”
“I think now that we have a hit of elevated manganese in the wells in the center, we can go back, have the hydrogeologists figure out exactly where we can get more wells in the center of the site now,” Keith Large with the DEQ said. “We have good justification and our attorneys can help order them to put in some more wells.”
Additional sampling is expected to begin in the next few weeks. EPA officials are now estimating the sampling and modeling phase may not be wrapped up for a couple of more years, with actual cleanup to follow.
But they say the government must be thorough in the assessment if the cleanup is to be effective and to withstand any court challenges by the former mill owners.