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Floodwaters raise concerns about toxins at Smurfit-Stone site


Rising floodwater threatens a berm that separates part of the Smurfit-Stone site from the Clark Fork River. (NBC Montana photo){p}{/p}{p}{/p}{p}{/p}
Rising floodwater threatens a berm that separates part of the Smurfit-Stone site from the Clark Fork River. (NBC Montana photo)

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Floodwater isn’t just a threat to homes and property, in Missoula there are concerns about the impact it could have on the former Smurfit-Stone site west of town.

The site, located near the Clark Fork River in Frenchtown, was home to a pulp mill for more than 50 years. What’s left now includes waste and hazardous chemicals, and some of it is in a floodplain.

“What we do know is all bad,” Clark Fork Coalition science director John DeArment said. “Everywhere the EPA and its contractors have looked, they’ve found toxic material -- in the floodplain, in those ponds I talked about immediately on the opposite side of the berm from the river.”

A 4-mile-long berm separates the Clark Fork River from the Smurfit-Stone site.

“The berm was never built as a serious flood-control structure,” DeArment said. “It’s not engineered to anything you would think of as modern standards.”

Each year, rising water and changes in the Clark Fork River threaten that berm.

“It’s certainly a concern of ours and has been for a number of years,” Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said.

If water breaches the berm, it could carry toxic waste stored at the Smurfit-Stone site into the Clark Fork River and possibly downstream into lakes.

“We cross our fingers, we hope for the best, we hope flood waters don’t get high enough to cause real problems,” DeArment said. “Eventually, given enough years, we’ll run out of luck.”

Flood season isn’t the only time DeArment said he worries about possible damage to the Clark Fork River from the Smurfit-Stone site. Chemicals seep into the river and groundwater from the site throughout the year, he said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency monitors the site, and there’s ongoing planning and assessment to develop a remediation plan.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” Strohmaier said. “It’s still probably a couple years out before we bring to conclusion some of the analysis, but Missoula County is actively engaged in the process.”

EPA officials are scheduled to conduct a routine inspection of the berm at the Smurfit-Stone site Thursday. There is also a contingency plan in place for increased inspection if the water level rises to 10 1/2 feet.

DeArment said he is pleased with the contingency plan and the EPA’s work to monitor the site, but he still has concerns as long as toxins are present.

“That has to come out. We need to get that out of harm’s way, get it out of contact with groundwater and move it somewhere high and dry where it can be managed effectively,” DeArment said.

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