How toxic are the grounds of a former pulp mill along the Clark Fork River?
On a cold afternoon in mid-November, former Smurfit-Stone pulp mill employee Larry Weeks pointed across the now- toxic waste site where he used to work.
“See, there used to be buildings over here. All this was big buildings. Matter of fact, there was a digester that was like 280 feet tall,” Weeks said as he guided about two-dozen scientists, residents and federal environmental officials across the Superfund site, which sprawls across 3,200 acres of historic floodplain 11 miles northwest of Missoula.
Scientists and Missoula Valley residents want to know: how toxic are the grounds of a former pulp mill along the Clark Fork River?
It’s a question with an answer more than a decade in the making — and one that will determine how the site’s hundreds of acres of unlined waste ponds are cleaned up.
The Environmental Protection Agency will make the final call. But a panel of local scientists and residents say they’ve long raised concerns over the EPA’s handling of the site. Now, with a boost from a federal EPA administrator, they’re making a renewed push to find an answer.
The group loaded into vans and drove around the site, often relying on Weeks to help them picture the industrial city that once drained its coffee-colored wastewater directly into the Clark Fork River. Weeks described towering structures and elevated conveyor belts that once criss-crossed the landscape as he stood at the foot of a rusting and dilapidated building that had been picked over for scrap years earlier.
“You’re only looking at a fraction of what’s left here,” Weeks said
When the mill shut down in 2010, it dealt a crushing economic blow to Frenchtown and Missoula. In operation for more than half a century, the facility was once the largest industrial employer in the area. More than 400 full-time workers guided wood chips through a complex pulping process using bleaching chemicals and equipment to produce a component of corrugated cardboard. Thousands of tons of waste from that process now rest in landfills and unlined sludge ponds across the site.
After he left his job at the mill in the 1990s, Weeks still made the frequent drive to the site — but not for work.
“I know this area like the back of my hand, and so I knew where all the birds were,” Weeks said on the car ride to his home. “I knew how to drive in there and get the most value for the birdwatchers.”
Weeks has been watching birds for decades and often brought Audubon Society tours through the grounds of Smurfit-Stone. But that stopped when the EPA’s investigation into toxins at the site began seven years ago.
“Well, it broke my heart when the mill shut down, and then it broke my heart when I couldn’t get out there anymore,” Weeks said.
Weeks fears he may never bring tours through the site again. He said he wants the EPA to do whatever it takes to make the site safe to access but he’s unsure if he’ll be around to see it.
“I don’t know. I’m 84 — if this goes on another five years, I don’t know what I’ll have the capability of getting involved in anymore,” Weeks said. “So, I don’t know if I outlast it or not.”
Weeks is one among dozens of individuals, environmental groups and scientists pushing the EPA to clean up the site.
But, with untold amounts of cancer-causing chemicals lingering in ponds and pits, and the ever-present danger a flood may wash away large portions of the site, community members advising the EPA say time is one of the biggest threats Smurfit-Stone poses to everyone — and everything — living downstream.
Elena Evans is a hydrogeologist and manages the Missoula Water Quality District, among other roles at the Missoula City-County Health Department. She’s also a vocal presence on the Frenchtown Community Advisory Group. Often called a “CAG,” it’s a volunteer group of residents and scientists who advise the EPA as part of the Superfund cleanup process.
The Frenchtown group is most concerned about the presence of three types of toxins they know lie in the waste ponds of the former mill: dioxins, furans and PCBs. All three are byproducts of the pulping process and are known to cause cancer in humans and wildlife.
“The problem is, they’re hard to get rid of, they’re persistent, and they’re really hard to capture with a grab sample,” Evans said.
The Frenchtown community group has for years said the EPA’s sampling at the site so far isn’t extensive enough to determine how widespread those toxins may be.
All three toxins are hydrophobic, meaning they don’t mix well with water. In Smurfit-Stone’s 800 acres of unlined ponds, which come into seasonal contact with groundwater, the chemicals become even harder to detect.
After unprecedented flooding in Yellowstone National Park in 2022, Evans and the community group worried what a massive flooding event would mean at Smurfit-Stone. Crews had to repair portions of the gravel berm that holds back waste ponds from the Clark Fork River after a 2018 flood.
“What’s hard right now is that the EPA, within their process and their very outlined way of doing things, isn’t able, or isn’t currently ready to accept that all of the sediments and water on site will eventually go into the Clark Fork River,” Evans said.
Letters sent to the EPA by Missoula County show local scientists first raised direct concerns over the integrity of the berms separating toxic waste and the Clark Fork River in 2015. They started requesting additional sampling and study of contaminated portions of the site soon after. Those concerns and requests continue to the present day.
The county’s plea for action seemed to find a sympathetic ear this fall in a regional EPA administrator.
President Joe Biden appointed KC Becker as head of Region 8 of the EPA in 2021. The former Colorado lawmaker visited Missoula twice last year to examine Smurfit-Stone and chat with locals and the government team in charge of the site.
“I think one of the roles I can fill on the site is helping to restore that public trust,” Becker said during an interview with Montana Public Radio.
During her second visit in September, Becker called the EPA’s study of the site “problematic,” and said the team needed to do more to build trust with the community. Following her visit, the Frenchtown advisory group submitted a formal request for more thorough sampling to determine the level of toxic waste at the site. In a January letter to Missoula county commissioners, Becker said that request will be granted. She told Montana Public Radio she intends to keep an eye on the project moving forward.
“I really want to make sure the community and county commissioners and other interested parties are all comfortable with the work the EPA is doing,” Becker said.
Prior sampling requests went through the Smurfit-Stone site’s remedial project manager, Allie Archer. Archer has led the EPA’s investigation of the site for the last three years. In an interview with Montana Public Radio, she said the pandemic made it difficult to communicate and build trust with the community and she appreciates Becker’s direct involvement at Smurfit-Stone.
“I think, with KC coming, and with more in-person and more ability to be out on-site that we’re going to have a way forward,” Archer said.
Members of the Frenchtown advisory group are hopeful this new round of sampling at the Superfund site will clarify once and for all the level of contamination at the former pulp mill.
Elena Evans with the Missoula Water Quality District says the EPA is charged with cleaning up the site appropriately.
“And we expect that they’ll do that,” Evans said. “We’re all participating and will continue to participate as long as it takes to get the site cleaned up.”
How long cleanup will take remains the big unknown hanging over the Smurfit-Stone site. EPA spokesperson Dana Barnicoat told Montana Public Radio the new round of sampling will delay a final report on the site’s contamination, but said the EPA hopes to continue through the Superfund process “in an expeditious manner.” The EPA said it will reveal details about the additional sampling and next steps at a Feb. 2 meeting in the Frenchtown High School at 6 p.m.