With flood season here, Smurfit's berms are at risk 

Ian Magruder isn't here to pick a fight. Nor, he says, are any other members of Missoula's water quality advisory council. They're simply asking for a plan that will ensure the berms currently separating the Clark Fork from the wastewater ponds, landfills and sludge ponds at the former Smurfit-Stone mill site don't fail. If Magruder sounds anxious, it's because spring runoff has already begun, and the time for a plan is now.

"We're asking for a plan to deal with the floods that's ready to go for this year," he says, "and that's good until the site's cleaned up."

Over the past few months, the citizen council has made its concerns about berm integrity abundantly clear in letters to Gov. Steve Bullock, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency. And they're hardly alone. In February, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes offered a half-dozen reasons they feel an evaluation of the berms is "time-critical." According to tribal chairman Vernon Finley's missive to the EPA and DEQ, permit records for emergency repairs to the primary bern show "a pattern of ongoing berm erosion issues," and no maintenance has been conducted since 2001.

County commissioner Dave Strohmaier pressed the issue during a quarterly conference call with regulatory officials last month, and tells the Indy he and his colleagues intend to keep exerting pressure on the EPA. Because it's private property, he says, there's not much else they can do.

"Until such a time as this site is cleaned up," Strohmaier says, "these berms are a concern for us, and we don't want to find ourselves caught off guard if a flood event does occur."

click to enlarge smurfitpond.jpg

The EPA is still negotiating with site owner M2Green and former owners Westrock CP and International Paper regarding inspection and emergency repair responsibilities. All three companies have retained the services of Missoula-based contractor NewFields, which informed the EPA in a February letter that it would be "premature to evaluate the stability of the berms" until investigations and risk assessments at the site are completed. DEQ confirms it did a preliminary walk-through of the berms alongside staff from EPA and NewFields in March, and that the berms will continue to be inspected monthly between now and mid-July.

Inspections alone aren't enough for the water quality advisory council, CSKT or the newly formed community advisory group in nearby Frenchtown. Everyone's top priority remains the removal and remediation of contaminants including dioxins, a goal that could finally allow the Clark Fork to reclaim its historical migration zone. In the meantime, Magruder says, the Missoula community and others downstream need to know there's a plan of action should the worst come to pass.

"People need to be already contracted to do the work should the river get high enough. And I think that the paper companies need to say that they're taking responsibility for it. ... All that needs to happen in the next couple of weeks."

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