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Contamination at Smurfit-Stone site warrants Superfund cleanup

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists have discovered cancer-causing chemicals in sludge ponds and nearby river sediments at Smurfit-Stone, the former pulp mill site that abuts the Clark Fork River just west of Missoula. The presence of these substances-- most notably dioxins and furans-- pose threats to human health as well as aquatic life in the Clark Fork, making the Smurfit-Stone site a prime candidate for a federal Superfund designation and comprehensive cleanup.

In October 2013, MT Fish, Wildlife, and Parks also issued a "do not eat" advisory for northern pike, and a "four meal per month" limit for rainbow trout, from the Clark Fork's confluence with the Bitterroot River, near Missoula, to the confluence with the Flathead River, near Paradise. Click here to read the full advisory from FWP. The advisories were issued by the Montana departments of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Environmental Quality and Public Health and Human Services in response to contaminant investigations in fish immediately downstream of the Smurfit Stone Container mill site in Frenchtown. Download the results of the FWP investigations here

In May 2013, the U.S. EPA proposed adding the Smurfit-Stone mill property near Missoula to the National Priorities List (NPL) of Superfund sites.  This action makes the 3,200-acre site eligible for the type of deep study and comprehensive cleanup afforded by the federal Superfund program. This decision is a big relief for us, as a 2011 study at Smurfit showed dioxins and other harmful chemicals present in sludge ponds, groundwater, and Clark Fork River sediments, confirming that contamination is migrating off-site.

A 60-day comment period occurred through July 22, 2013. Thanks to all individuals who sent a note of support for federal Superfund designation at Smurfit. We hope to see the site officially added to the NPL by Fall 2014. In our view, NPL listing is the best path for eliminating a public health threat, protecting the Clark Fork, restoring the area's riverfront and floodplain to its near natural condition, and keeping taxpayer dollars out of the equation.

Visit the EPA website for Smurfit-Stone Mill for background info and additional details. 

Read the recent guest column by CFC Science Director Chris Brick. 

Download the EPA's Fact Sheet on Smurfit-Stone

Download the EPA's Analytical Results Report for Smurfit-Stone

Download the CFC press release

Read Missoulian and other media coverage


New challenges: Renewed waste discharge permit

Back in 1986, a newly-minted Clark Fork Coalition sat down with Stone Container Corp. to fix a waste dumping permit and protect the Clark Fork River. Fast forward 30 years and it's deja vu all over again in the form of a renewed waste discharge permit.    

The MT Department of Environmental Quality recently granted new owner M2Green a renewed discharge permit that would allow just as much waste to be pumped into the river as a fully-functioning paper mill -- one that no longer exists. We believe that DEQ should have canceled the permit instead of transferring it and issuing a renewed permit to a non-functioning plant. We believe this permit sets a bad precedent, which is why we're filing an appeal calling on MT DEQ to do right by the river and do permitting correctly in a way that protects the innumerable gains for clean water that have been achieved on the Clark Fork over the past several decades.

Read the CFC appeal to DEQ here

History

Back in 1984, the mill at Smurfit-Stone was owned by Champion International, and their request to dump pollutants year-round directly into the Clark Fork River spurred a group of citizens into action.  By early 1985, this group coalesced as a fledgling organization-- the Clark Fork Coalition.  The groups sat down together and forged a communal solution to the problem, setting the tone for the way the Coalition would continue to work in the future.

The mill closed down in January 2010 after operating for 53 years as a pulp and paper mill.  The plant will never again produce paper because of a non-compete agreement with Smurfit, so the paper-making infrastructure is being demolished and sold for scrap.  But with a chipper and boiler still on site, there are other possibilities for light industry, and lots of acreage for a variety of uses, including restoration of wetlands and riparian habitat near the river.  But the first issue to tackle is the removal of hazardous substances-- the byproducts resulting from decades of intense industrial use at the site.

The present

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took a hard look at the Smurfit-Stone site in summer of 2011 and did preliminary sampling of soil and water. The results of this study were recently released in September 2012. The analysis of contamination shows cancer-causing chemicals in sludge ponds and river sediments nearby, making Smurfit-Stone a threat to human health and aquatic life, and a prime candidate for the type of comprehensive cleanup afforded by Superfund listing. Additional sampling by state agencies in 2013 revealed the presence of dioxans, furans, and PCBs in northern pike and rainbow trout, prompting the agency to issue an advisory. While this is hardly a surprise given decades of industry at the property, the findings are still a wake-up call that clean water and public health are at risk. The sooner we get on top of the problem with the help of a proven cleanup program, the better.

As detailed in EPA’s recent report, the Analytical Results Report, soils in the property’s sludge ponds contain dioxins and furans as well as several heavy metals.  Dioxins and furans were also found in Clark Fork River sediments adjacent to the mill site.  In addition, the shallow groundwater beneath the sludge ponds and wastewater storage ponds is elevated in these toxic substances along with arsenic and manganese.  These compounds are harmful to human health and hazardous to the environment.  Dioxins, in particular, are potent carcinogenic substances that can damage human immune systems and interfere with hormonal and reproductive function.  They accumulate in fish and then work their way up the food chain-- bad news all the way around, and there’s evidence that they’ve spread beyond the site to shallow groundwater and the river.  Much of this area is within the 100-year floodplain, and some of the ponds actually sit over what was once the Clark Fork River channel. Old air photos from 1955, taken before the mill was built, show meandering traces of the river flowing through the area where some of the ponds now sit. Now, the only thing standing between these sludge ponds and the Clark Fork is a narrow bulldozed berm, called a levee. In 1997, the levee withstood a 30-year flood-- the biggest since the ponds were built-- but it's anyone's guess if they'd hold for a larger event.  The potential for further damage to the river is a real possibility.

smurfit3-lowresWhy we need the Superfund designation

The Smurfit-Stone site will likely rank out high as a potential candidate for the Superfund listing.  Established in 1980 to address abandoned hazardous waste sites, the federal Superfund program allows the EPA to clean up pollution and compel the responsible parties-- when they still exist-- to reimburse certain cleanup costs.  When those parties can’t be found, the EPA taps a special trust fund to finance the cleanup.

In the case of Smurfit-Stone, the question of who pays is not yet clear.  A small Illinois-based investment group, called Green Investment Group, Inc. (GIGI), bought the mill in 2011, along with its environmental liabilities, from a bankrupt Smurfit-Stone, whose assets were scooped up by RockTenn.  GIGI is a small firm that its website says exists to acquire Brownfield sites for restoration and redevelopment.  GIGI doesn’t have much to show on either end of that equation, so we’re concerned that the assets simply aren’t there to take on contamination issues of this scale.

However, RockTenn is an entirely different story.  It is North America’s second largest producer of corrugated and consumer packaging and its largest operator of paper recycling.  Based in Norcross, Ga., the company employs 26,000 people and operates more than 240 facilities in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, and China.  All signs point to there being some resources here, but the biggest question is whether the company is on the hook for the contamination at Smurfit-Stone.

While EPA and State officials work through those questions, we'll be working to help community members and public decision-makers make sense of EPA’s findings and bring possible options into better focus. Our community needs a chance to fully understand what the contaminants are, where they are, the pathways to the river, and how to get them out of harm’s way and keep them out, permanently.  We hope the EPA will soon follow up on this data report to better characterize all of the potential contamination sources and the threats they pose to aquatic and human life-- and then make a plan to remove them.

While Superfund is not a perfect tool, it can really go to work in positive ways-- like we've seen at Milltown and the Clark Fork's headwaters. A Superfund cleanup takes time, requires cooperation from the responsible party, and takes a lot of coordination.  This type of thorough and comprehensive cleanup will have benefits for groundwater, the Clark Fork River, local economies, and future generations.  Many communities-- upstream and down-- have invested sizable resources in making the Clark Fork clean, healthy, and whole.  Cleaning up this site is the responsible thing to do.

Media coverage:

MTPR 5/28/14: Waste discharge permit renewed for closed plant

Missoulian 11/16/13: Risk of eating Clark Fork fish below the Bitterroot topic of Monday review

Missoulian 5/22/13: EPA proposes Superfund designation for Frenchtown mill site

KECI 9/11/12: EPA tests find soil, groundwater contamination at old Smurfit mill site

KPAX 9/11/12: Old Smurfit-Stone mill may be declared Superfund site

Missoula Independent 9/11/11: Frenchtown mill appears bound for federal Superfund listing

Missoulian 9/12/12: Former Frenchtown mill site may need Superfund cleanup

Missoulian 4/7/2012: Despite lawsuit, scrapping, lack of jobs at Smurfit site, some hopeful

Missoulian 10/8/2011: 2 manufacturers look to use Smurfit-Stone millsite in Frenchtown

Missoulian 5/5/2011: Investment group buys Smurfit's Frenchtown mill

For questions on cleanup at Smurfit-Stone, please contact Science Director Chris Brick at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it