National environmental nonprofit American Rivers has included an iconic western Montana river in its 2023 list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers, citing its proximity to the site of a former 1,000-acre pulp mill still rife with contaminants.

The river is the Clark Fork, which flows from the Continental Divide before running through Missoula, Alberton, St. Regis and Thompson Falls on its journey to Lake Pend Oreille in the panhandle of Idaho. The pulp mill operated northwest of Missoula for more than 50 years before Smurfit-Stone declared bankruptcy in 2010 and walked away from the sprawling site, which includes hundreds of acres of unlined ponds that were used to store wastewater — some of it untreated — as well as landfills and sludge ponds.

Those landfills, wastewater ponds and sludge heaps are dangerously close to western Montana’s largest-volume river and leach toxins into the groundwater, according to environmental nonprofit Clark Fork Coalition, which has long called for federal intervention. More specifically, it would like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the contaminated material and remove the nearly four miles of unengineered berms holding back the river from its historic flood plain.

The Clark Fork Coalition, which started in the mid-1980s amid concerns associated with the pulp mill, says the pairing of topography and carcinogenic chemicals result in a “catastrophe waiting to happen.”

“Every spring since the mill shut down in 2010, we’ve had to keep our fingers crossed that nature will take it easy with spring run-off and won’t throw too much at these flimsy berms,” Clark Fork Coalition Executive Director Karen Knudsen told Montana Free Press. “It’s been 13 years. EPA has yet to tackle the problem despite compelling evidence that cleanup should start immediately. We think our river and our communities can’t wait.”

Knudsen said she’s hoping the Clark Fork’s inclusion on American Rivers’ endangered list — it’s No. 5 on a list of 10 — will spotlight both the contamination risk and what western Montana communities have to gain by working to remediate the site.

She notes that the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers, upstream of the Smurfit-Stone site, has a similar legacy of industrial pollution, but the removal of the Milltown Dam and remediation of the site has helped Missoula become “River City,” with a vibrant recreational economy.

“It’s been 13 years. EPA has yet to tackle the problem despite compelling evidence that cleanup should start immediately.” 

Clark Fork Coalition Executive Director Karen Knudsen 

“It’s just pulsing with nature and it’s a place of community connection and civic pride, so to be stripped of that by a four-mile swath of languishing industrial wasteland [downstream] is just a shame,” Knudsen said. 

Lisa Ronald, western Montana associate conservation director with American Rivers, said the EPA has shown some interest in escalating its interest in site remediation — it recently committed to stepping up its sampling efforts — but would like the agency to demonstrate more urgency. 

“If the berm were to fail during the next flood-level event, these toxins would wash downstream. In that sense, the Smurfit site is a ticking time bomb, and really, the only way to defuse it is to clean it up,” she said.

“We want to make sure the EPA really hears from the community,” Ronald added. “They’ve indicated they might be putting their foot on the gas. We want them to put their foot on the gas and move this process forward.”

Ronald also noted that it’s unsafe to eat fish caught in a nearly 150-mile stretch of the Clark Fork downstream of its confluence with the Bitterroot due to toxins that accumulate in their tissues, many of which are believed to stem from the pulp mill site. 

The Clark Fork’s plight has also garnered interest from Montana lawmakers, who have weighed in on the Smurfit-Stone remediation project so the state can have a larger, more coordinated voice when it comes to cleanup efforts. Thursday morning, the House Natural Resources Committee of the Montana Legislature passed House Joint Resolution 18, which directs the Environmental Quality Council to stay apprised of the cleanup process.

During a Wednesday afternoon hearing on HJ 18, bill sponsor Rep. Jonathan Karlen, D-Missoula, said he sees the resolution as a way for the state to receive up-to-date information on the site’s status — it’s not currently a Superfund site, but is in the funnel to potentially become one, he said — and communicate impacted residents’ concerns and preferences.

HJ 18 co-sponsor Sen. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula, told the committee he believes the site has residential and commercial potential, but needs to be cleaned up first. 

“This facility needs to be cleaned up, not only for the toxins and the like, but there are opportunities to build a significant number of homes in the area, and also there is a spur line running from Montana Rail Link right into the facility that’s been cleaned up. It would make a great light manufacturing facility,” Curdy said.

EPA Community Involvement Coordinator Dana Barnicoat said his agency is working with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and potentially responsible parties to set up a sampling plan for the site. 

“The Superfund process does take time to fully address the nature and [extent] of the contamination, along with ensuring the public is aware and has a voice throughout the process,” Barnicoat said in response to an emailed question about the barriers to site remediation. 

Barnicoat also noted that the EPA has collected hundreds of soil, sediment, surface and groundwater samples over the past several years and is still evaluating whether there are other sources of contamination polluting the Clark Fork. 

In its report, American Rivers notes that the Clark Fork plays multiple roles in the communities it flows through, serving as a source of irrigation, drinking water and hydropower, as well as a primary driver of local outdoor recreation economies. It also boasts an important fishery that hosts game fish such as westslope cutthroat trout and bull trout, the latter of which is threatened. 

“The Clark Fork river has faced a long legacy of industrial pollution, resulting in a complex of Superfund sites in the river’s hard-working headwaters — several of which have been successfully cleaned up, including the Milltown Reservoir and Dam that was removed in 2009,” according to the report. “Cleanup work is making headway at these sites and the river is on the mend. The lack of action at Smurfit-Stone, however, puts these gains in jeopardy.”

Over the nearly four decades that American Rivers has released its list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers, a number of Montana rivers have been included due to concerns about existing or potential sources of pollution, including the Smith, the Kootenai and the Blackfoot. The Clark Fork previously appeared on the list in 2000.

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Amanda Eggert studied print journalism at the University of Montana. Prior to becoming a full-time journalist, Amanda spent four years working with the Forest Service as a wildland firefighter. After leaving the Forest Service in 2014, Amanda worked for Outside magazine as an editorial fellow before joining Outlaw Partners’ staff to lead coverage for Explore Big Sky newspaper and contribute writing and editing to Explore Yellowstone and Mountain Outlaw magazines. Prior to joining Montana Free Press’ staff in 2021 Amanda was a freelance writer, researcher and interviewer. In addition to writing...