Berms built along the now shuttered Smurfit-Stone pulp mill have prevented the Clark Fork River from expanding into its historic floodplain, as demonstrated by this 2011 image of a high-flow event. Credit: Courtesy Missoula Valley Water Quality District

For more than a decade, Frenchtown residents have worried that contaminants left behind when Smurfit-Stone shuttered its pulp mill are polluting regional water supplies and compromising a substantial stretch of the Clark Fork fishery. But they say that concern is dwarfed by what could happen if a 50- or 100-year flood takes out four miles of berms separating one of the state’s largest rivers from an unknown amount of carcinogenic chemicals and heavy metals left behind when the mill closed in 2010.

It appears that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is taking those concerns to heart. Earlier this month, the agency charged with administering Superfund sites committed to conducting a climate vulnerability assessment to better understand current and future risks to the site.

“This forward-looking assessment demonstrates EPA’s commitment to a full understanding of potential risks, both now and in the future, at the Smurfit-Stone Mill site,” EPA Region 8 Administrator KC Becker said in a statement. “The effects of climate change are already apparent in Montana. Ensuring that cleanup remedies are designed with these effects in mind will strengthen their long-term effectiveness and protect human health and the environment.”

Frenchtown Smurfit Stone Community Advisory Group Chair Jeri Delys said she’s “extremely happy” that the EPA is taking into account the work the group has done since it formed seven years ago to advocate for the site’s clean-up so the property can be put back to productive commercial use.


Delys said the integrity of the berms are front-of-mind when she thinks about what will happen if the Clark Fork experiences the kind of rapid-onset flooding that overwhelmed the Yellowstone River last year. “Those berms were never engineered to hold back a flood,” she said. “They were engineered to hold back pond water.”

The announcement comes on the heels of another win for the citizens’ advisory group, Delys said. In February, the EPA committed to conduct additional sampling of groundwater and soil at the site to garner a more fulsome picture of pollutants and their interaction with seasonal changes to water tables and hydrology.

The community advisory group has been pushing the EPA and responsible parties to clean up the site so that the property can be repurposed for commercial and residential purposes, thereby contributing jobs, tax revenue and housing to a community that hasn’t fully recovered from the closure of one of its largest employers over a dozen years ago.

“Our job is to make sure the site is clean for generations to come,” Delys said. “We want economic development, but we also want to make sure the site is clean. We don’t want a ‘waste-in-place’ solution like what they’re doing in Butte.”

EPA staff in Washington, D.C., will start the climate assessment later this month and intend to wrap up the study six to eight months later. It differs from traditional risk assessments the agency conducts in that it will focus on the “strength of the remedial plan in the face of climate change,” EPA community involvement coordinator Mackenzie Meter told Montana Free Press in an email. 

“We want economic development, but we also want to make sure the site is clean. We don’t want a ‘waste-in-place’ solution like what they’re doing in Butte.”

Frenchtown Smurfit Stone Community Advisory Group Chair Jeri Delys

Climate risk assessments are designed to both inventory known contaminants and anticipate public health and environmental impacts if wildfire, flooding, drought, heavy precipitation or other extreme weather events make those pollutants airborne or waterborne. Findings and recommendations from the risk assessment will be incorporated into Smurfit-Stone’s site remediation plan, Meter said, adding that the climate assessment will run concurrently with an ongoing remedial investigation that the EPA launched in 2015. 

To complete the climate vulnerability assessment, the EPA will use site analysis and in-house climate-modeling, as well as local knowledge and expertise. 

Elena Evans, an environmental health manager for the Missoula City-County Health Department, said she’s encouraged that the EPA will consider data from outside agencies and groups, given the extensive work that’s been done locally to map the floodplain, delineate potential river channel migrations and understand interactions between streamflow and groundwater. 

The county is pushing the EPA and responsible parties to clean up the full site, including the berms and all of the toxic material behind them languishing in sludge heaps, wastewater ponds and landfills across 3,200 acres.

“We don’t see the berms as protective today, so we don’t want to see them [remain there] in perpetuity using protectiveness as a rationale,” Evans said.

This image comparing the Clark Fork River channel in 2018 to 1955, the year that the pulp mill opened, demonstrates how much of the Smurfit-Stone site is located along the historic floodplain. Credit: courtesy Karin Boyd and Chris Boyer/Kestrel Aerial Services

Evans added that although some community members have been frustrated by the EPA’s pace through this process, the clean-up is “turning a corner” and it’s critical that regulators get it right by inventorying the full suite of contamination concerns. Those concerns range from elevated levels of arsenic and manganese in groundwater to the presence of carcinogenic bleaching chemicals like dioxins and furans in Clark Fork fish, which prompted the state to issue a do-not-eat advisory for fish caught for a 148-mile stretch of the river in 2013.

Clark Fork Coalition Legal Director Andrew Gorder echoed Evans’ sentiment.

“I think it’s really important that the data be collected,” he said. “Otherwise you don’t have an adequate or realistic picture of the risk, and then you don’t get an adequate clean-up.”

Gorder added that his organization, which owes its mid-80s formation, in part at least, to pulp mill contamination concerns, is pleased that the EPA has committed to doing the climate vulnerability assessment.

“It’s been a long road with Smurfit and we’re definitely not at the end by any means, but I think we’re seeing some good, reasonable response from the EPA,” he said. “We’re going to continue to push both on the adequacy of the investigation and the timeliness of the clean-up. We don’t have another 15 years to wait around to get this thing cleaned up.”

The EPA’s announcement comes five months after American Rivers named the Clark Fork one of the most endangered rivers in the U.S., citing its proximity to the Smurfit-Stone site. In May, the Montana Legislature passed a resolution directing the Environmental Quality Council to study the site’s remediation to keep state agencies abreast of that process and amplify their concerns and desires as the federal clean-up progresses. The council is expected to flesh out the details of that study when it meets in November, according to House Joint Resolution 18 sponsor Rep. Jonathan Karlen, D-Missoula.


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...