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EPA unsure if fish samples can show Smurfit health risk

Smurfit Stone pond
Posted at 7:53 AM, May 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-11 16:07:55-04

MISSOULA — After more than two years, the Environmental Protection Agency will finally release fish tissue data gathered around the Smurfit Stone mill site, but it still might not be enough determine the risk to human health.

On Thursday night, EPA Superfund project manager Allie Archer told the Smurfit-Stone Community Advisory Group that she expects the data from fish tissue collected in 2018 and 2019 to be published on the EPA website sometime next week.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks employees and EPA workers captured a number of rainbow trout and northern pike at about a dozen sites up- and downstream of the Smurfit site in 2018 and 2019. The fish tissue was analyzed for various pollutants related to the Smurfit operation, and the results should provide an indication of whether eating fish caught around the site poses a health risk.

A do-not-eat advisory issued in 2013 is still in effect. However, Archer still doesn’t know what data is useable.

Last year, the EPA originally announced they wouldn’t use the tissue FWP collected in 2018. The EPA hadn’t given FWP special reagent water for rinsing the samples, so FWP used distilled water, a common practice in sampling. Concerned about objections from the potentially responsible parties who have to pay for the cleanup process, the EPA rejected the samples.

The risk assessment was delayed a year as a second sampling trip was scheduled for 2019.

After the Community Advisory Group pushed back, the EPA agreed to process the 2018 tissue but Archer said the results would be “heavily qualified.”

Sampling got started late last year due to the last minute change and EPA delays. FWP fish biologist David Schmetterling said the rivers had dropped too low by the time technicians got out, so they were unable to collect fish from a few sites, such as the Blackfoot River near Greenough and the Clark Fork River near Clinton. So the 2019 data set is incomplete.

Now, the plan is for EPA analysts to evaluate the data over the next month, after which they’ll indicate what data is useable. Then they’ll conduct the risk assessment and publish a report in the fall.

“I know there’s a huge interest in this data for a lot of different stakeholders,” Archer said. “But whether or not it satisfies EPA’s need for risk assessments… We feel like it can do that, but we’ll work with our (technical advisory group) to make sure everyone has that same understanding. Or if there are any data gaps, we can, of course, go back out.”

The mention of data gaps made some CAG members uncomfortable.

“If there are data gaps – this is from 2018 – I guess the burning question is are we looking at another two years?” said CAG member Jeri Delys. “This process has really seemed to drag on and it’s a vital piece. The wait has been a challenge.”

Archer said she hopes the analysts have enough data, but if more is needed, only one more trip should be required.

Schmetterling said his team was ready to collect more fish, and now is the time with the rivers running high. He had asked the EPA to allow his team to collect from the sites they’d missed in 2019 to fill in those gaps.

“The plan was, as we left it in 2019, to finish the sampling in the spring of 2020,” Schmetterling said. “It was expressed to us that people at the EPA was very disappointed that we didn’t complete the sampling (in 2019). Those samples were ‘very important.’ The question I asked is, without knowing what’s in the data, how those samples are now deemed not necessary.”

Archer said the EPA still required employees to stay home because of COVID-19 so they couldn’t send a team to help. In fact, at the end of March, the EPA suspended enforcement of all environmental laws, saying the pandemic made it too difficult for industry to comply and the EPA to enforce.

But Schmetterling said the EPA told him no at the beginning of the year before COVID-19 restrictions were put in place.

Archer said she wasn’t informed that sampling would be conducted in 2020, and the EPA never confirmed the 2018 data would be used. Only a statistical analysis comparing the two data sets will show if the 2018 data can be used, Archer said.

One CAG member questioned whether the EPA was being objective in weighing the data’s usability over the PRP’s objections to the data.

Schmetterling asked why the 2018 data wouldn’t be used. The distilled water used in 2018 may cause the measurements to differ from those collected in 2019, but the difference would apply to all the samples collect in 2018. All that would be needed is to apply a correction factor to the 2018 measurements to make them line up with the 2019 samples.

Archer said these questions could be brought up next month after the data is analyzed.

“As far as it being a complete data set without the 2018 data, that’s something I’d rather not think about now. Hopefully, we can use the data and we won’t have to look at a truncated set,” Archer said.

Osprey studies could provide one other piece of information for the EPA to assess the health risk, but EPA Region 8 supervisor Gregory Sopkin denied the CAG’s request to use osprey.

Meanwhile, the rivers are rising and concerns still exist about the dirt berm that separates the mill site from the Clark Fork River. Archer said the berm passed inspection in April. It will be inspected monthly unless the river rises to flood stage, when more frequent inspections will kick in.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at