Missoula County hoped the results of water sample testing from the Smurfit-Stone site would come in quickly. Commissioners pushed the EPA for a 48-hour turnaround two weeks ago. As of June 5, EPA remedial project manager Sara Sparks still didn’t have them.

“I’m surprised that we don’t have the results yet, and am anxious to see them, of course,” says county environmental health specialist Travis Ross, characterizing the tests as a “snapshot” from this year’s flooding.

The samples were collected May 24 after the EPA dispatched an emergency response unit in response to concerns that rising floodwaters may have compromised the integrity of the berm separating the site from the Clark Fork. Local officials first grew alarmed on May 11 when investigators discovered a series of boils along the inside of the berm at a former wastewater pond. A week later, as crews worked to patch those boils with dirt and gravel, Missoula County commissioners noted a tea-colored plume emanating from the berm and sent a letter to the EPA demanding “immediate action” to determine if contaminants were leaking into the Clark Fork.

The EPA’s emergency response manager, Marty McComb, did not believe the berm was in imminent danger, but the situation compelled him to recommend that the EPA conduct a full hydraulic assessment of the Smurfit site. McComb’s team spent several days observing the site and developing an interim contingency plan. What they came up with was a list of inspection guidelines calling for daily observations of the berm once the river level reaches 11 feet. The contingency plan also stipulates that sampling must take place in the event the Clark Fork breaches the berm, and that sampling results must be returned within 48 hours.

Ross is glad to see those priorities set to paper, but he’s far more interested in the recommendations McComb’s team came up with for a longer-term contingency plan. McComb’s support for modeling of the berm and the floodplain is in line with what county officials have been seeking for years. The EPA also recommended identifying local sources for earthen material to reinforce the site’s interior berms in case the outer berm fails.

“What we really wanted to pay attention to are what the recommendations are for a final contingency plan, and that includes where the floodplain really is on that site, and understanding how the forces of the river affect the site,” Ross says. He adds that a separate berm-stability analysis should be completed by the end of June.

According to Ross and Sparks, initial testing for dioxins — a highly toxic compound associated with herbicide production and paper bleaching — revealed nothing alarming in samples from the Clark Fork or inside the berm. As of press time, Sparks was still awaiting data on heavy-metal contaminants from the potentially responsible parties, specifically International Paper, M2Green Redevelopment and packaging company WestRock.

Staff Reporter

Alex Sakariassen began working at the Indy in early 2009. He primarily reports on state politics, the environment and the craft beer industry. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Choteau Acantha and Britain’s Brewery History Journal.

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