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Gov. Shutdown Delays Smurfit-Stone Contamination Meeting

Smurfit-Stone Container mill outside Frenchtown, Montana.
Djembayz (CC-BY-SA-3)
Smurfit-Stone Container mill outside Frenchtown, Montana.

The ongoing partial government shutdown has scuttled an upcoming meeting between Missoula County and the Environmental Protection Agency.

That meeting was meant to discuss ongoing concerns about the closed and contaminated Smurfit-Stone Container pulp and paper mill site in Frenchtown.

Travis Ross, an environmental health specialist w/ the Missoula Valley Water Quality District.
Credit Edward O'Brien / MTPR
Travis Ross, an environmental health specialist w/ the Missoula Valley Water Quality District.

Ostensibly that now-postponed meeting between Missoula County officials and EPA’s new Montana Project Manager Allie Archer was meant as a general meet and greet, a chance to discuss, “General questions with the site, goals that sort of thing," says Travis Ross, an environmental health specialist with the Missoula Valley Water Quality District.

Ross is talking about the now-shuttered 3,200 acres Smurfit-Stone pulp mill site. The plant operated for over five decades before closing in 2010.

Some of its unlined ponds store treated and untreated wastewater, sludge and various potential toxic wastes, including dioxins, lead and arsenic.

Major flooding last spring produced plumes of discolored water and heightened concerns of catastrophic failure of the berms separating the site from the Clark Fork River.

It also exacerbated Missoula County’s sometimes tense relationship with EPA’s now-retired project manager, Sarah Sparks.

“We’ve had some difficult moments in that relationship," Ross says. "During flooding, it was a difficult time for everybody. It was highly stressful for the county, for citizens, for EPA overseeing the site. We disagreed on some approaches to that site for sure.”

Ross says Missoula County hopes to turn over a new leaf with EPA’s new project manager Allie Archer.

“What are we going to do when we see the next high water? We want to see that preparation on the front end rather than [a] reactionary response.”

Ross Wednesday urged the Missoula County Commission to prioritize some topics whenever they meet with Archer, including, “Discussing the need to investigate these landfills and sludge ponds more thoroughly, so looking at the density and depth of sampling - that’s the source area of contamination to groundwater. The risk of flooding to the site and response plan to that; that will be another topic of discussion.”

Missoula County Commissioners took Ross’s suggestions under advisement Wednesday.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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