EPA official advocates involvement in mill cleanup

“I believe in a healthy environment,” said Robert Moler, a community involvement coordinator for the EPA. “I believe in healthy people. I want to see this site understood, cleaned up and used.” (Missoula Current)

By Sherry Devlin/Missoula Current

FRENCHTOWN – Robert Moler believes that when citizens talk to the government, good decisions come of the ensuing exchange.

That’s why he was in the Frenchtown Fire Hall on Thursday night, talking with a couple dozen west valley residents interested in the cleanup and restoration of Smurfit-Stone Container’s former mill site.

A community involvement coordinator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Moler hopes to encourage area residents to form a Community Advisory Group – a CAG, in EPA parlance – to help shape the future of the site.

The property is undergoing an environmental assessment that will help the EPA decide whether to officially place the Frenchtown mill on its nationwide Superfund cleanup list. What contaminants were left by decades of paper making at the site? Where is the contamination? How can it be cleaned up?

Moler wants community members to get involved now, both to share the knowledge they have from working at and living alongside the mill and to shape how the property will one day be used.

“I believe in a healthy environment,” Moler said. “I believe in healthy people. I want to see this site understood, cleaned up and used.”

But the EPA cannot create a Community Advisory Group – only the community can do that. Then Moler can help the group negotiate the Superfund process, apply for grants, offer recommendations and tap into expertise available locally and beyond.

“It requires some effort to form a Community Advisory Group,” he said. “It’s difficult to find people with time, availability and interest. I would like to have a CAG at this site. There are good reasons to make this group happen.”

During the decades-long Superfund cleanup in Milltown, a diverse CAG called the Milltown Superfund Redevelopment Working Group focused its efforts on achieving the future land uses that fit best with community priorities.

Moler gave the Frenchtown residents information on Milltown Reservoir’s restoration and the successes of its CAG, including creation of a state park along the now-free-flowing Clark Fork River, preservation and restoration of historic structures, and a thriving collection of industrial uses on the former Champion mill site in Bonner.

Not everyone at Thursday’s meeting of the West Valley Community Council was convinced that a CAG is needed in Frenchtown – at least not now.

Larry Weeks, an active member of Five Valleys Audubon Society and a former environmental manager at the Frenchtown mill, endorsed the idea but said a community group isn’t needed until the EPA has finished its studies and releases a report.

“Then we could start talking about what might happen,” Weeks said. “I think the EPA should finish its work first. We all want to see the mill site cleaned up, and then we can look at what we might want to see happen there.”

Even then, Weeks said, it will be the mill site’s new owners who determine its future use.

But Moler challenged the group to take a more expansive approach, organizing a CAG now and getting involved in the remedial investigation.

Community members have information that the EPA needs to make a good decision about a possible Superfund listing and cleanup, he said. They know the property and its past uses. They have dreams for the future. They have uniquely valuable expertise and perspectives.

Jeri Delys, chair of the West Valley Community Council, said she favors creation of a CAG earlier, not later. Already, she said, Moler has improved communications between the EPA and local residents.

Delys showed a letter she wrote to the EPA in mid-January, expressing her fears about the stability of berms that separate the Clark Fork River from the former pulp mill’s settling ponds.

“The concern of many people in the Frenchtown community, and other agencies, is the potential for flooding of the site, and as a result, contamination of the Clark Fork River,” her letter read.

This is the critical time to assess the berms, Delys added, before spring’s high water.

The EPA was prompt in its response, Delys told those gathered in the fire hall. Along with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, the EPA asked the “potentially responsible parties” to conduct “periodic and ongoing inspections” of the berms – and requested that the inspections begin this spring, before high flows.

The PRPs agreed to the inspections, “and we anticipate that they will help in determining if there are any structural problems with the berms in the near term,” Frenchtown project manager Sara Sparks wrote in her response to Delys.

“We are certainly pleased with the communications we are getting from the EPA,” Delys said. “Thanks go to Robert (Moler).”

Moler said he will present information on Community Advisory Groups to other gatherings in the weeks to come, then will convene a brainstorming session where community members can decide if they want to form a CAG, and what that group might do.

In the meantime, Moler encouraged area residents to call or email him with their comments, concerns or to volunteer their involvement with a CAG.

Moler can be reached at 406-457-5032 or by email at moler.robert@epa.gov.