FRENCHTOWN – Environmental Protection Agency staff are getting closer to finishing their sampling for toxins and contaminates at the old Smurfit Stone mill site.

But they say they’re also planning more sampling of soils, ponds, and the Clark Fork River this spring and summer to fill in “data gaps” as they assess the environmental risk.

EPA officials tell Frenchtown residents they’re close to releasing what they call their draft “baseline” plan by the end of this month. That plan is based on all the sampling the agency has been doing on the Smurfit site for the past couple of years. EPA is focusing now on the two sections known as “OU2” and “OU3″, covering the interior of the old liner board mill, and the uplands where the former cooling ponds and dikes abut the Clark Fork River.

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“You look at a huge sweep of contaminants,” said Brian Sanchez with EPA Risk Assessment. “So what we’re trying to do is hone down that list and to try to determine what’s important ecologically. What are we finding at levels that may be of ecological concern.”

Outside of some “hot spots” at the very center of the mill, the EPA says many of those samples are coming back at levels below where there are concerns for exposure to wildlife and the environment. But Sanchez says the agency will collect more samples to be sure this spring and summer.

“More sediment. More water. Samples from the Clark Fork River, both upstream and downstream from the site,” Sanchez said. “There are also several ponds on the site, OU3, that are potentially important ecologically for waterfowl. And we don’t have any water or sediment data from those ponds. We want to collect that data.”

At the same time, EPA is looking at risk to Frenchtown residents. Again, outside of groundwater contamination in the heart of the mill, there haven’t been any surprises.

“The groundwater and the manganese specifically, and cobalt in the groundwater for workers on site was a driver for risk,” said Steven Merritt with EPA Risk Assessment. “So that presented a risk. With respect to recreators and people that are using the river, the cancer hazards and the non-cancer hazards both from soils appear to be within guidelines. And then for the general population fisher, the recreational fisher, risks from consumption of fish are approaching but within the EPA guidelines.”

EPA says they’re also taking “off site” river contamination into account, in other words, impacts from historic mining and other activities elsewhere in the Clark Fork watershed.

The latest development is that the owners of the Smurfit site have filed deed restrictions which will prevent future residential development on the site, which also means a lower threshold for cleanup.

Reporting by Dennis Bragg for MTN News