The Clark Fork River at Missoula has reached major flood stage at 13 feet. This is exacerbating longstanding concerns over environmental contamination at the Smurfit-Stone Mill, and putting homeless people camped near the river at risk.
The National Weather Service says the Clark Fork is expected to crest at 13.4 feet by Saturday, putting it at its highest flow in almost 40 years. That’s caught the attention of Missoula County environmental health specialist Travis Ross.
"One aspect of this flooding that we’re paying particular attention to right now is the threat of berm failure at the former Smurfit-Stone mill site in Frenchtown.”
That mill closed in 2010. A two mile-long, unmaintained earthen berm is all that sits between the Clark Fork River and the contaminated industrial site that contains toxic gunk such as metals and dioxins.
"There are two main threats of failure," Ross says. "It can happen as water overtopping the berms. Right now, there’s 7 to 8 feet of freeboard.”
Freeboard is the amount of space the river has before getting over the berms.
“The other thought is what’s considered hydraulic failure from the current of the river hitting the upstream end of that berm.”
The Army Corps of Engineers was scheduled to inspect the berm’s integrity on Thursday afternoon.
Meanwhile, Missoula Search and Rescue was called to assist several men at a transient camp under the southwest corner of the Reserve Street bridge. Their campsite was rapidly transforming into an island.
"And so they were trapped," says Jeff Brandt, a member of the county’s incident management team.
"It wasn’t a full-on rescue boat, but we did send folks out in dry suits and we were able to escort some of those folks up and out of there. One male needed to be rescued. We do have one person there who said he was staying no matter what.”
Eighty-seven year-old Melvin Brecht was one of the men who voluntarily left the camp.
Brecht says he, "Went down to the store last night and got a bunch of groceries, planning to stay there [figuring] we wouldn’t be able to move back and forth for a week or so. Thank God for the Fire Department."
Authorities were searching for places to house the other men who decided to leave their riverside camp.
Authorities warn that the Clark Fork’s water is freezing cold, fast-moving and in many cases unsanitary. Anyone who comes in contact with it in flooded residential areas is urged to thoroughly wash as soon as possible.