Tour of former mill site highlights dangers to MT River / Public News Service

Community members and conservation groups recently toured a former paper mill over concerns that the site posed a threat to a nearby Montana River.

The Smurfit Stone mill near Missoula operated from 1957 to 2010, leaving pollutants in its wake that continue to leach into the nearby Clark Fork River.

In 2020, the state expanded a fish consumption recommendation to include a 100-mile stretch on the river.

Elena Evans, environmental health manager for the Missoula City County Health Department, took part in last week’s tour.

She said berms separate industrial waste from the Clark Fork over a four-mile stretch and cover 380 acres of the river’s floodplain.

“The berms are causing concern for people downstream,” Evans said, “leaving unlined landfills and landfills and mud ponds that impact our EPA-designated aquifer, and that’s why we had a tour.”

Evans said the site is also a problem for Missoula’s drinking water.

She said she hopes that by voicing her concerns during the US Environmental Protection Agency’s investigative phase of the Superfund site, she hopes officials will consider the results the community expects — such as the restoration of Clark Fork’s flood plain.

In 2018, higher than average spring runoff resulted in some of the berms eroding and releasing toxic waste into the river.

Julia Crocker, community programs coordinator at the Clark Fork Coalition, was also part of last week’s tour.

She said there are concerns about what an even larger event might do to the debris stored behind those berms.

“Since we’ve seen these big floods becoming more frequent due to climate change,” Crocker said, “there’s a chance that all of this would be pushed into Yellowstone if we had an episode here, like the Clark fork.”

David Brooks is the General Manager of Montana Trout Unlimited and was also on the tour last week.

His organization is part of a study due to begin in 2023 that will examine fish and water quality near the former mill to determine the extent and extent of pollutants in the river.

Brooks said this is a critical issue for Montanans.

“People relax in the flow,” Brooks said. “People eat fish from the river. And even without a catastrophic event, this is a long-term problem for water quality, fish and people.”

The impact of toxins in the region is also of concern to the Confederate Salish and Kootenai tribes, whose ancestral lands lie within the 100-mile fish consumption advisory area.

Tribe members depend on fishing and have spearheaded efforts to properly clean up the former mill site.

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