Papermaking is a dirty industry. That’s not news. But it takes an on-the-ground analysis like the one the Environmental Protection Agency recently conducted at the shuttered former Smurfit-Stone mill, on the banks of the Clark Fork River northwest of Missoula, to grasp the extent of it.
The agency found that all Clark Fork surface water samples contained concentrations of arsenic that exceed aquatic life and human health standards. Those samples also contained elevated levels of dissolved manganese. All sediment release samples taken from the river contained elevated concentrations of various dioxins and furans. One sediment release site also contained chromium and vanadium.
Samples taken from the 3,200-acre site’s several sludge and wastewater storage ponds also contained dioxins and furans, along with organic compounds such as 4-methylphenol, naphthalene and phenanthrene.
Elevated levels of antimony, arsenic, barium, cadmium, calcium, chromium, lead, manganese, nickel, potassium, silver and zinc were all found in at least one surface soil sample.
In those sludge and soil samples, the concentrations of benzo(a)pyrene, arsenic and the multiple dioxins and furans exceeded federal benchmarks for Cancer Risk Screening Concentration as well as the Superfund Chemical Data Matrix, a measure for evaluating whether a site should be added to the federal Superfund priority list.
In shallow groundwater samples, the EPA also found toxins that exceeded federal standards. In shallow aquifer groundwater near one of the mill’s landfills, chlorobenzene, ethylbenzene, o-xylene, m,p-xylene and isopropylbenzene were found.
These chemicals (and perhaps more, considering that the EPA’s investigation didn’t include every wastewater pond) make up the toxic soup left behind by a half-century of papermaking at the Frenchtown mill, which closed in early 2010. Every year, on average, the mill produced about 5.7 billion gallons of wastewater, much of which was discharged into the Clark Fork, and some 20,000 tons of sludge sent to the ponds.
The EPA’s long-awaited "Analytical Results Report" (PDF), based on field work conducted last October and intended to help determine whether the mill site should be added to the federal Superfund National Priorities List, was released to county and state officials this week.
The report’s findings generally don’t come as a surprise, considering the byproducts commonly left behind by paper mills. But what troubles state Superfund program director Denise Martin, for one, is that the concentrations of dioxins and furans “were higher, perhaps, than I would have expected to see.”
Dioxins and furans refer to a family of toxic substances that share a similar chemical structure. They’re created during the wood-fiber bleaching process. Dioxins are known human carcinogens. They are also known to affect hormone levels and cause a skin disease called chloracne. “In animals,” the EPA has reported, “these effects include changes in hormone systems, alterations in fetal development, reduced reproductive capacity and immunosuppression.”
While the EPA found that the mill site’s contaminants have migrated to groundwater and the sediments in the Clark Fork River, the detected concentrations “are not at levels that would necessitate an emergency response action,” says Rob Parker, a regional EPA site assessment manager.
Though they may necessitate a federal Superfund designation. That’s to be determined.
Tom Livers, deputy director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, says he and other state officials believe it’s prudent to designate the Frenchtown mill a federal Superfund site.
“It’s a big site,” he says. “We know a portion of it is contaminated and going to require cleanup. We don’t know exactly how much yet, but it’s going to take a lot of resources to make that happen, and certainly if we can get federal Superfund involved [that will provide] a lot more resources than we could probably bring at the state level. It seems to make sense to us.”
The Missoula County commissioners agree. “We’ve had a successful cleanup” at the Milltown Superfund site, says Commissioner Jean Curtiss, “so we don’t see it as a big strike against us...The state has more limited resources and they’re focused on some other projects right now.” And the situation at the mill site is urgent, she says: The levee system that separates the Clark Fork from the wastewater ponds, which lay in the river’s historic floodplain, is inadequate. “It seems like there’s a danger it could be compromised.”
A Superfund designation also provides more leverage to make the polluter pay. But who would actually pay is complicated. The Illinois-based Green Investment Group, Inc. purchased the mill last year. In doing so it absolved bankrupt Smurfit-Stone (now owned by the paper manufacturer RockTenn) of all environmental liability. GIGI also holds an environmental liability insurance policy.
While DEQ Director Richard Opper told the Indy at the time of GIGI’s acquisition of the mill that the company is “familiar with this kind of cleanup work,” GIGI’s commitment and ability to clean up a mess of this scale are unclear. The company owns six other former Smurfit-Stone mills, including three in Canada, all of which are smaller than the Frenchtown mill site, and operates them primarily as a scrapper. Several former GIGI contractors, including Missoula’s Tom Dauenhauer, have filed breach-of-contract suits against the company; one of those suits, in Washington State, raises doubts about the company’s solvency. (Read more about GIGI's track record here.)
GIGI Vice President Mark Spizzo, in an emailed statement, said the company is reviewing the EPA report. “We have been working cooperatively with the EPA throughout their inspection,” he said, “and will work in tandem with them to gain full understanding of the situation and to determine any further actions...The health and safety of the citizens of Missoula County is our number one priority.”