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EPA is pushing progress on Smurfit Superfund site in Missoula
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EPA is pushing progress on Smurfit Superfund site in Missoula

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Visible for all to see in the Missoula Valley, the former Smurfit-Stone Mill and current Superfund site is a well-known landmark and a priority for the Environmental Protection Agency. The property’s location along the Clark Fork River only adds to the shared concern for addressing risks to human health and the environment. Unfortunately, an opinion published in the Missoulian on May 31 from the Clark Fork Coalition makes several misleading claims about EPA’s efforts, which we would like to address.

Since entering a 2015 consent order with parties potentially responsible for the contamination, EPA has been leading a collaborative, comprehensive effort to determine the nature and extent of contamination and assess potential risks at the Smurfit-Stone site. These investigations, while intensive and time-consuming, are a prerequisite for progress, as they lay the scientific foundation for identifying potential cleanup actions.

We recognize the Coalition’s frustration with the length of the Superfund process. However, EPA has accomplished much at the Smurfit site including overseeing the completion of more than a dozen distinct monitoring and assessment efforts focused on developing detailed, defensible information on soils, surface water, ground water, and aquatic and terrestrial organisms — all critical and necessary to understanding contamination at the site.

Evaluating and addressing decades of environmental impacts through Superfund is never a simple endeavor. The process is comprehensive, thorough, and places a premium on sound science and public participation. There will always be different perspectives regarding process, priorities and data. EPA welcomes and encourages these discussions; they are a vital part of the process and inform our efforts to identify effective and defensible cleanup actions.

Still, referring to the site as an “industrial wasteland” requiring emergency response presents an exaggerated reality. Hazardous substances were used or produced on site throughout the operation of the mill, and some contaminants, primarily manganese, remain. But extensive sampling data to-date indicates the on-site contaminants do not rise to the threshold of requiring emergency removal. The data supporting this determination is available to and regularly discussed with the public.

Regarding the berms between the site and the Clark Fork River, EPA has been proactive to ensure they do not cause or contribute to any releases of hazardous substances. In May 2018, EPA deployed an emergency response team during the record-setting 30-year flood event. We learned that although the berms are porous in spots, they did not breach and were not in danger of overtopping. We also determined that while some arsenic was released from the site to the river — remember the tea-colored water? — neither arsenic, nor any other contaminants that EPA sampled in the river, posed a threat to aquatic life. In response to this flooding event, EPA developed a detailed Berm Surveillance and Contingency Plan that outlines protective measures that we will take to mitigate any future flooding threats.

The Coalition’s opinion also calls for an immediate removal of the waste dump and landfills at the site. EPA understands these are areas of concern based on their history. However, sampling data collected to-date show that hazardous substances are largely contained. Therefore, long-term decisions about how to best address these areas will be presented for public input after the completion of the site-wide environmental investigation.

EPA values the positive working relationships we have built with the Clark Fork Coalition and all of our partners who have a stake in the future of the Smurfit-Stone site. Ultimately, we share similar goals of protecting human health and the environment and supporting beneficial reuse of the site.

Allie Archer is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund project manager for the Smurfit-Stone site. 

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