FRENCHTOWN — Although it’s uncertain when it might happen and who will pay for it, additional sampling for contaminants at the Smurfit Stone mill site will occur, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
On Tuesday afternoon, representatives of the EPA met with Missoula County commissioners and staff and the mill site trustees to cement a sampling plan that’s been hashed out in meetings and correspondence since mid-March.
“These requests aren’t fully encompassing. They’re just what we thought would be a reasonable start for addressing the issues and sampling to date,” said Elena Evans, Missoula City-County Environmental Health manager. “We could have requested more samples but we wanted to keep it in line with what we’ve seen on other cleanup sites and standard practices.”
The trustees include the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Montana Natural Resource Damage Program, Fish, Wildlife & Parks, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service.
EPA project manager Allie Archer said the trustees and the Clark Fork Coalition added comments on Friday to the Data Quality Objectives - the document outlining what would be sampled and why. She sent it to the potentially responsible parties - corporations responsible for paying for the cleanup - and they have two weeks, starting 16 May, to object or agree to do the additional sampling.
When County Commissioner Josh Slotkin asked what would happen if the potentially responsible parties said no, Archer said the additional work would be done, but the EPA would have to decide where to get the funding and how to do the contracting. She said the EPA is committed to collecting additional data and will try to keep pushing the timeline.
“Unless I’m missing something, this sounds like really good news,” Slotkin said.
Archer said the additional sampling does push back the cleanup. The additional data will have to be added into the risk assessment and then they’ll move onto the feasibility study. The cleanup decision might not be made until 2028.
Karen Knudsen, Clark Fork Coalition executive director, asked if there was some way to clean up some parts of the site, specifically the waste dumps, before then, because concerns remain about the stability of the berms separating the site from the Clark Fork River.
Archer said the current understanding of the site is that the contamination doesn’t pose a critical threat, therefore the Superfund law doesn’t allow action until the various studies are complete.
Fortunately, the flooding and weather forecasts don’t indicate that the river will be as forceful as it was in 2018 when the berm developed cracks and water welled up in the mill site ponds.
National Weather Service hydrologist Ray Nickless said it appears that the Clark Fork River above Missoula peaked at 9.5 feet on May 7. Even though the recent high temperatures have caused the mountain snowpack to melt rapidly since May 1 - the upper Clark Fork drainage has 85% of normal snowpack - and the river is predicted to crest again Friday, it’s not likely to exceed the May 7 peak.
“That may be the peak for the year, barring a very large rain event,” Nickless said.
Evans said it’s bad if the river overtops the berms, but the county Water Quality District is also concerned about the river eating away at the berms from below. The decades-old earthen berm would be illegal if it was built today, so the county wants the EPA to remove it in the final cleanup.
“There were repairs and repairs and repairs,” Evans said.
Archer said the EPA’s May berm inspection revealed no issues. She said she couldn’t say what would be done with the berms until the risks were known.
Evans outlined the county’s requests for additional sampling that were supported by the Montana trustees. The trustees recommended starting with sludge sampling because the results could inform where other sampling was needed.
The mill produced tons of sludge per day that were deposited in a number of sludge ponds on the site. Because the sludge contained contaminants, the county requested that the EPA drill one new boring for every 3 acres of sludge and take several discrete samples in each boring. This is because the EPA had combined previous samples into a composite, making it difficult to tell what contaminants were found where.
The mill site wastewater treatment system of ponds and ditches covers 900 acres of the site, making it difficult to sample it all. The county recommended prioritizing sampling along the ditches and areas where employee testimony identified wastewater spills.
Finally, the mill pumped 15 million gallons a day out of the ground to use for wastewater, changing the groundwater flow under the site. The trustees requested that nine new wells be dug in addition to the sludge borings to sample groundwater and that well sampling be done on a quarterly basis, instead of once or twice a year. And even though the EPA resisted the use of passive water samplers, the county requested they be used in a few wells where some PCBs exceeded EPA standards.
Phase 1 sampling includes the sludge, wastewater and groundwater. Phase 2, which has yet to be defined, includes surface water and the biota such as fish and wildlife.