As Missoula's Clark Fork River continues to rise, recede, and rise again, the public's attention has turned to threatened homes in Clinton or on Tower and Schmidt streets. But earlier this spring, as the Missoula County Board of Commissioners turned its collective mind to the inevitability of higher-than-normal flows, officials identified another public safety concern: the potential for a toxic spillover at the former Smurfit-Stone settling ponds.
"The Smurfit-Stone levees are not—and cannot—be certified to protect the property from flooding," the commissioners wrote in a March letter to Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock, adding that neither the U.S. Geological Survey nor FEMA recognize the Smurfit-Stone berms as adequate flood protection.
The county still does not know the extent of the contamination in the marshy land west of Smurfit-Stone's shuttered plant. But Commissioner Jean Curtiss is relieved to report that, so far, the flooding has had no visible impact on the ponds. Curtiss recently drove through the site with a representative from the Green Investment Group, which acquired the Smurfit-Stone property this spring, as well as a member of Sen. Max Baucus's staff.
"It looked fine," Curtiss says. "It wasn't close to topping over. I think we are okay." Curtiss adds that while the ponds looked secure even at high flows, the county remains eager to see any contaminants at the Smurfit-Stone site cleaned up as soon as possible.
The flooding could, however, have a serious impact on existing county policy. Among the many questions Curtiss says the commission intends to discuss with the public is whether the county should reexamine its regulations on building in the floodplain. Officials violated their own emergency operations policy by supplying sandbags and sand to protect private infrastructure when the river reclaimed a channel along Kehrwald Drive. They were later criticized for a late response, but Curtiss believes it "really isn't government's place to save people from themselves."
"Our regulations allow people to build in the floodplain if the parcel of land you own doesn't have any other options," she continues. "You have to elevate your house, you have to have a sand mound for your septic, a few of those things. But is that good public policy? I don't know. I think we probably have to revisit that."