Smurfit tour shows expanse, complexities of contamination sampling

Posted at 9:19 PM, Sep 14, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-14 23:19:14-04

FRENCHTOWN – If there’s a needle in an environmental haystack, it’s likely the old Smurfit Stone mill site in Frenchtown.

A special community tour this week shows the expanse and complexities of sampling for contamination on the sprawling, 3,200-acre site.

On Thursday I was invited to join a busload of Frenchtown community leaders, interested citizens and leaders of agencies and groups involved in efforts to clean up the former liner board mill, which closed nearly a decade ago.

It was a rare opportunity. The last time any of this group got onto the mill site was a year ago, although the Environmental Protection Agency, state and some local agencies have been sampling and assessing the huge site.

In fact, the current owners, M2Green, changed the rules of the visit just before we entered the gates, saying we had to stay on the bus except for a few specific stops.

Those stops and explanations showed the areas where EPA is focused, with Project Manager Sarah Sparks showing us where PCB and other contaminates has been found in the heart of the mill.

But other spots, such as Operation Unit 1, are basically farmlands that EPA says are clean and ready for future use.

However, there’s still plenty for this group to worry about, including the berms between the settling ponds and the Clark Fork River. This is where flood waters pounded the berms last spring. In fact, you can still see the sands left behind by the high water. EPA showed where there have been some small, nearly invisible cracks showing that stress, but says by and large the berms are secure, where the agency was looking for specific information in recently released tests.

“What is the berm made up of, the soils? How is it composited, compressed? The stability of the soil as it was laid down,” said EPA Project Manager Sarah Sparks.

Further downriver, we saw where the owners had backfilled the inside of the berms. This is where overflights show discolored water entering the river during the height of last May’s flooding. While there was some evidence of contamination, the agencies said the berms held. Although, there’s concern about future flooding.

This is where all the concern was back in May during the flooding. Was the groundwater getting into the river? Was the river intruding on the groundwater? You can still see where those test samples were taken last spring.

“But this was the major concern,” Sparks said. “What was happening? Did we see contamination from 13A moving towards the river.”

“But then you could have a problem if if got up there and saturated with water from the left side moving the right side,” said Keith Large with Montana DEQ. “Plus the groundwater could come up on the right side and saturate it from both sides.”

Because the berms won’t last forever, there’s increasing concern of getting the flooding and contamination hazard addressed first. And the tour will help inform that work in the coming months…

“We’ve been looking at maps,” said Jeri Delys with Smurfit Stone Community Action Group. “And now to actually be on site and to see where the berms were, to see where the holding ponds were, there sludge ponds, aerators, all of those things. It’s really very, very important to us.”

Much of the attention right now is focused on pending test results of whether fish in the Clark Fork are being contaminated after the flooding.

Reporting by Dennis Bragg for MTN News