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Missoula County, city and health look to sway cleanup of Smufit-Stone property

Posted at 9:51 AM, Jul 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-23 11:51:19-04

MISSOULA — As the analysis into lingering contaminants at the Smurfit-Stone Container mill site drag on, Missoula County is making its expectations clear in a letter it hopes will guide EPA and any recommendations for cleanup.

Commissioners, along with Missoula Mayor John Engen and the City-County Board of Health, have all joined the letter, which covers their concerns as state and federal agencies prepare a package that will include a framework for cleanup of the former industrial property.

The concerns include the Clark Fork River floodplain, the Missoula Valley aquifer and the disposal of solid waste, among others.

“This will be the package of regulations that will eventually be considered in any cleanup decision, which we feel confident we’ll finally get to at some point with some options on how to deal with this site,” said Travis Ross. “We wanted to get firmly on the record the community’s concerns and the regulations we feel should be applied.”

Ross, the environmental health specialist for the health department’s Water Quality District, said Missoula County has had floodplain regulations in place for 40 years. The regulations are adopted by the county and reviewed by FEMA and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Among other things, the county’s floodplain regulations prohibit rip-rap and allows for channel migration along the Clark Fork River.

Both could be key considerations in any recommended cleanup of the Smurfit-Stone property, as will the county’s water quality ordinance. The latter is intended to protect the valley’s sole source aquifer, which provides the drinking water for nearly 100,000 residents.

“We did throw in the water quality ordinance, which is applicable in city limits and five miles beyond,” said Ross. “That prohibits placing any materials in a spot that could cause contaminants to not just groundwater and surface water, but also soil. We feel it’s worth including.”

The letter to DEQ also includes notes the county’s solid waste regulations and where waste from the site will eventually land – if removal is recommended. Solid waste currently on the site doesn’t have a liner, it sits in the floodplain and has no long-term monitoring, Ross said.

All three violate state and county regulations.

“We want to make sure it’s crystal clear, and it’s a regulation we intend to look at closely as a cleanup decision,” Ross said.

County officials said they’ve discussed the letter with Montana’s Natural Resource Damage Program, which lies under the Department of Justice, so the agency is aware of the county’s course of action.

They’ve also spoken with DEQ so that agency “knows the letter is coming.”

“This letter is addressed to DEQ, because we want DEQ to compile that rule package to give to EPA,” Ross said. “It will land on an attorney’s desk and hopefully get compiled into that (recommended cleanup) package.”

Elena Evans, a hydrogeologist with the Water Quality District, said the end goal is to ensure the county’s current regulations are considered with any future remedy for the site. Those regulations should be central to the EPA’s “playbook” as it prepares the next course of action in cleaning the property and preparing it for another use.

“This letter sets forth the expectations in the regulatory framework that we’re hoping for as we continue to go through the Superfund process steps,” Evans said. “It’s continuing to set expectations from our community perspective.”