Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) The Environmental Protection Agency has asked what additional sampling Montanans want at a local Superfund site but balked at agreeing to many of the proposals offered.

This week, Missoula County representatives traveled to Helena to meet with EPA,  Montana Department of Environmental Quality and other state employees to try to agree on how much and what kind of additional sampling was needed at the Smurfit Stone mill site.

All those involved met in mid-March for the first round of discussion and ended up agreeing that sampling would occur in two phases. The first would focus on groundwater, sludge and wastewater areas, leaving the Clark Fork River and its fish and wildlife for a later, second phase.

EPA project manager Allie Archer intended Monday’s two-hour meeting to wrap up discussion of the plan for Phase 1, but it got nowhere close. The participants spent about 90 minutes trying to nail down the specifics for groundwater with little success.

Elena Evans, Missoula City-County Environmental Health manager, tried to explain why the county and other members of the Frenchtown Smurfit Stone Citizen Advisory Group considered the EPA’s groundwater sampling to be insufficient.

She pointed to University of Montana and contractor studies that showed that while the pulp mill was moving water from underground to the various holding ponds, the groundwater moved in different directions and at different rates at various points on the site. While the mill was pumping water, the groundwater dropped about two dozen feet, and now, it’s potentially filled back in at least 6 feet since the mill closed. But that means some pollutants could have been left in the dry layer of ground called the “vadose zone,” Evans said, but that hasn’t been sampled.

“Understanding how much everything has changed since the site stopped operating; how variable everything was during the study; how abnormal water-flow into groundwater and associated contamination was at the time the mill operated is pretty crucial to looking at where we can understand the nature and extent of contamination that’s entering our groundwater,” Evans said.

Evans has asked the EPA to increase both the number of sampling wells across the mill site - particularly across the middle where the facility and some of the processing occurred - and the regularity with which they’re sampled.

The EPA collected one instantaneous sample twice a year most recently with the result that some wells have eight samples over time. Evans and Travis Ross, Missoula County Water Quality District environmental health specialist, said that wasn’t often enough to catch all the groundwater variation.

“Part of the issue we’re trying to get at is that vadose area. It isn’t caught during high groundwater. It’s really hard to time groundwater. Are those source areas being captured? That ties into the spatial and temporal distribution,” Ross said. “So if we’re missing the right locations and the right timing, the sampling methodology becomes even more important.”

Missoula County representatives asked that the EPA use passive sampling devices in the wells. Passive sampling devices slowly collect water over the course of 30 days to pick up any contaminants that flow through during that time. But the EPA representatives pushed back against that.

Newfields geochemist David Tooke said all the data collected so far was put into the EPA’s groundwater conceptual model and “we’ve been very comfortable” with the groundwater contours produced by the model. The contours are consistent, just “a layer cake”throughout the site, and it’s well understood, Tooke said.

“The approach for sampling was to try to figure out the distribution of concentrations for each potential contaminant throughout the groundwater system and to capture a spatial and temporal distribution of data. Ultimately, the risk assessors use the upper concentrations observed in that distribution for conducting risk assessment. So it can become less important to have a good temporal understanding,” Tooke said.

NewFields is a representative of the potentially responsible parties that now own the property, including West Rock, International Paper and M2Green. They were not present at the meeting. The EPA takes input from NewFields because the potentially responsible parties are supposed to pay for the assessment and cleanup work.

Ross disagreed with Tooke that the site is well understood because of old river channels that have pushed through in the past. Hydrologists have a good understanding of regional processes, but the mill site, being right next to the river, is a lot more complicated, Ross said.

Angela Franzen said passive samplers aren’t used as often as grab samples, because technicians need to have a lot of data to be able to calibrate the readings in the passive samplers to existing measurements.

“Just deploying them out there without doing due diligence is going to give you data that is going to be hard to defend,” Franzen said. “That’s really our concern: making sure that whatever we do is defensible and worth the time and not have all kinds of questions raised.”

Archer agreed to the possibility of conducting quarterly samples. Missoula County representatives didn’t give up and asked that passive samplers still be considered.

Evans also asked that the samples be assessed for the dioxins, furans and congener PCB’s that are the byproducts of pulp, paper or pesticide manufacturing.

The EPA had tested for Aroclor PCBs, but Evans said that wasn’t appropriate. There are 209 different kinds, or congeners, of PCBs, which the U.S. banned in 1978 after their toxicity and environmental longevity were discovered. Montsanto was the only American manufacturer of PCBs for almost 50 years, producing some under the trade name Aroclor. But the only places where Aroclors were used on the Smurfit Stone site was in the electrical transformers.

Evans asked for more regular testing for congener PCBs in at least the three wells where Aroclor PCBs were found plus wells between the sludge ponds and the river. EPA representatives were reluctant to conduct additional sampling on a lot more wells. But other wells are just as likely to produce contaminants that haven’t been picked up yet, Evans said.

EPA and DEQ employees grew frustrated that few agreements were being reached after 90 minutes. EPA Remedial Project manager Jamie Miller said the point of in-person meetings was to come up with a plan. Otherwise, the work would be pushed back even further.

Catherine LeCours of EA Engineering, Science and Technology, Inc. asked if it would be better to publish a map of the mill site overlaid with wells and data information and allow Missoula County and the Frenchtown Smurfit Stone Citizen Advisory Group to comment. All agreed that option would work better, especially after the sludge ponds were discussed.

Evans said the problem was that she didn’t speak for all the Montana trustees, but Missoula County could make it easy.

“I’d be open to sampling all the wells for PCBs, but we’re also factoring in all the concerns at hand,” Evans said. “But if we want to just go ahead and sample all the wells for PCBs and do all the wells quarterly for dioxins and furans and do all the work we suggested at the preliminary stages of this investigation to get at spatial and temporal, we’re completely open to that. That would really move us really quickly along the timeline.”

The EPA was not open to that. So it was agreed that Archer and the EPA would send a site map and a potential plan regarding the groundwater, sludge and wastewater to the county and CAG so they could comment. No additional meetings were scheduled.

Those with Missoula County anticipate that the potentially responsible parties would exert pressure on the EPA to limit the amount and kind of additional samples collected.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at

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