In between Smurfit-Stone Container Corp.'s shuttered mill near Frenchtown and the Clark Fork River to the west lies a 900-acre marsh of wastewater and sludge left behind after a half century of papermaking. Only a berm along the river's banks keeps the settling ponds from mingling into the Clark Fork's flow.
That berm may very well be tested this spring. Unusually deep snowpack has forecasters predicting severe flooding in the Missoula Valley—perhaps even a 100-year flood, a spillover the Clark Fork hasn't seen since 1908.
"The Clark Fork River as it comes through Missoula is going to be running high," says Ray Nickless of the National Weather Service. "Right now it's not projected to exceed the flood stage, but it's going to be close. What determines whether it does or not is if we get rain mixed in with snowmelt in May or June. The potential's there."
The flood fears swell, coincidentally, just as local and state officials call on Smurfit-Stone to assess the level of contamination in its wastewater ponds before it sells the property. Last week, the Missoula County Commissioners sent a letter to Attorney General Steve Bullock and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) requesting a comprehensive evaluation of contaminants, pointing out that the wastewater and sludge ponds fall within the Clark Fork's 100-year floodplain, as designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
"The Smurfit-Stone levees are not—and cannot—be certified to protect the property from flooding," the commissioners wrote. "The levees are not recognized to provide flood protection by the U.S. Geological Survey or FEMA."
At the same time, the DEQ sent a letter to Smurfit-Stone strongly urging it to conduct an environmental assessment, citing concern that potentially significant environmental issues haven't been properly addressed. The agency warned that it has the authority to designate the property a state Superfund site, or request that the Environmental Protection Agency inspect the site to determine whether it would fall under federal Superfund authority.
DEQ Director Richard Opper says it's in the community's interest—and the buyer's interest, since it would inherit liability—to evaluate the level of contamination before the sale closes.
"If there's contamination in the settling ponds, then we'd worry about if the ponds ultimately failed, if the berms failed, releasing [toxins] into the main channel of the river," Opper tells the Independent. "Or, if there's contamination in the ponds, then it could be slowly leaking out into the river. That would be a concern, too. We just need to know what we're dealing with here."
The agency has some sense of what it expects to find. Opper notes 11 documented petroleum spill sites on the property. The Missoula County Commissioners fear PCBs, carcinogenic PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), arsenic, metals, dioxins and furans—contaminates commonly left behind by pulp and paper mills in the region—may linger behind the berm.
"We don't know that there's stuff there for sure, but paper mills across the nation have that reputation," says Commissioner Jean Curtiss. "So we feel like it's important to have [Smurfit-Stone] be the one that is responsible. They claim things are clean but nobody's seen anything to prove it."
Smurfit-Stone has yet to respond to the DEQ's letter, but the company plans to work with the agency to better understand its concerns. Spokesperson Lisa Esneault says when Smurfit closed the mill in early 2010, it developed a strategy for removing chemicals—like black liquor and petroleum products—making an environmental assessment unnecessary.
"This work is now complete and we believe all environmental issues at the mill have been appropriately addressed," she says.
Esneault declined to comment on whether the DEQ's request may impact the mill's sale, or at least the timing of it, to MLR Investments LLC, an affiliate of Portland, Ore.-based Ralston Investments. The company's owner, Tim Ralston, couldn't be reached for comment. MLR Investments reportedly plans to scrap the mill. Though plans for the site remain uncertain, the planned demolition seems unlikely to create as many jobs as local and state officials had hoped.
News that the mill would be scrapped prompted the commissioners' letter. As Curtiss explains, the property will require a higher level of cleanup should new owners seek to use it for, say, residential uses instead of industrial.
But more than that, the commissioners want to avoid what—especially this spring—appears inevitable.
"The river will reclaim its channel in the future and migrate into the former floodplains of the Clark Fork and O'Keefe Creek," the commissioners wrote to the DEQ. "If the site is not cleaned up before this occurs, it will result in potentially catastrophic releases of contaminates to the river, affecting aquatic life, water quality and downstream communities."
It's a risk the commissioners aren't willing to take.
"If there is contamination, we don't want it left in our county," Curtiss says. "We've dealt with enough of that stuff."