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Guest view: Investigate whether Smurfit site waste is leaching into Clark Fork River
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Guest view: Investigate whether Smurfit site waste is leaching into Clark Fork River

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Smurfit stone

After spring flooding in 2018, a dark stream of water was present on a stretch of the Clark Fork River outside the berm that separates the river from the former Smurfit-Stone mill site. Area officials were concerned the dark plume showed the underground movement of water from the berms to the river, and recent tests showed contaminants in the plume.

More than any in recent memory, the summer of 2020 has illustrated just how good Missoula’s anglers have it. With an abundance of trout-filled rivers and streams out our back doors, we can take off for an after-work wade or float and be casting at a favored fishing spot in no time. And for many of us, that favored spot is on the Clark Fork River.

Weaving through the heart of our valley, the Clark Fork characterizes the essence of our river-centric community. In spite of its industrial past, the Clark Fork supports a robust fishery, even harboring threatened bull trout, which migrate upriver toward their native spawning streams. 

Preserving the Clark Fork’s fishery has not been easy. From the mining Superfund-complex at its headwaters, to the Milltown Dam that once choked the Clark Fork’s confluence with the Big Blackfoot, doing right by the resource has been a battle at every turn, and sportsmen and -women have been at the front lines.

Take the former Smurfit-Stone pulp and paper mill located on the banks of the Clark Fork west of Missoula. In the late 1950s, the Waldorf Paper Company brought the mill to Missoula with promises of good-paying jobs and economic growth with little risk to the health of the river. Yet as mill operations began, it became clear that the company simply planned to use the river as a dumping ground, discharging toxic mill effluent and waste directly into surface waters. Fishermen immediately began to complain of the foam, discoloration and stench created by the mill’s discharge.

In July of 1958, less than a year after the mill opened, fishermen near Ninemile reported huge numbers of dead fish in the river. FWP sampling in response to the event revealed that fish had been virtually killed off for a 25-mile stretch downstream of the mill. Local sportsmen were outraged. Don Aldrich, former head of the Western Montana Fish and Game Association, said later that local anglers, many of whom had been skeptical of the mill’s location on the Clark Fork, felt betrayed. The enormous fish kill was the catalyst for sportsmen’s demands for change. “You have to take something away to get people to fight,” said Aldrich.

For sportsmen, the solution was clear. If the mill was to continue its operations, its owners needed to invest in technology to treat its waste and protect the river, plain and simple. Thanks to the dogged efforts of anglers, conservationists and stakeholders, the mill’s operations gradually improved over time.

More than 60 years have passed since Smurfit’s first fish kill. The mill closed its doors in 2010; its owners have disappeared into bankruptcy and obscurity, but the mill’s toxic shadow over the river remains. In 2013, FWP collected trout and pike samples from the Clark Fork stretch below the mill and found elevated levels of dioxins, furans and PCBS: all dangerous toxins and all associated with pulp and paper mill industry. FWP’s discovery prompted a do-not-eat advisory for northern pike and a consumption limit advisory for rainbow trout. The advisory is still in place and stretches 105 miles downstream of the mill to the Clark Fork’s confluence with the Flathead River.

This is unacceptable.

Local anglers deserve to know if they can ever trust eating the fish in the Clark Fork. Moreover, we deserve to know how the Smurfit site is or is not contributing to the problem. Now is the time for the EPA to conduct a thorough investigation of the site’s impacts on fish, wildlife and other aquatic life. If the evidence shows that the site’s buried wastes are leaching into the river, then those wastes must be immediately removed.

Walker Conyngham is board president of Hellgate Hunters & Anglers.

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