Less than a week after Gov. Steve Bullock called on the Environmental Protection Agency to place the shuttered Columbia Falls Aluminum Company plant site on the Superfund program’s National Priority List, company officials have responded with concerns that listing would slow cleanup efforts and hinder redevelopment.
On Feb. 18, Bullock sent a letter to EPA Regional Administrator Shaun McGrath urging the agency to proceed with listing the site on the priority list to expedite cleanup.
“I’m concerned that if this issue remains unaddressed, the contamination from the site is serious enough to pose long-term risks to the community and to Montana’s environment, including the Flathead River,” Bullock stated in his letter.
In response, Haley Beaudry, the former external affairs manager at CFAC, said that while the company remains committed to assessing the site and developing a Remedial Investigation Work Plan through a private contractor, a Superfund listing would “unnecessarily slow the cleanup process and any future redevelopment” of the contaminated site.
Beaudry pointed to a Dec. 12 letter in which CFAC Secretary Cheryl Driscoll raises similar concerns and invites Bullock and his staff to meet and discuss the matter, “which was never granted,” he stated.
According to Bullock’s office, the governor’s chief of staff tried for a month to broker a meeting with CFAC to no avail, holding the letter until negotiations broke down between the company and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
“Our office responded to Glencore and attempted to set up a meeting, but got no reply. After holding the letter for a month in hopes Glencore would respond, our chief of staff tried and got no reply,” according to a statement from Bullock’s communications director Dave Parker. “A few months ago, Glencore walked away from cleanup negotiations with the state Department of Environmental Quality. Given these factors, we believe the surest path to full cleanup is through the federal Superfund process.”
Driscoll wrote that listing on the National Priority List, or Superfund, can stigmatize a property and prevent others from seeking to redevelop the site, thus potentially limiting economic growth. She stated that other Montana Superfund sites have not benefited from listing.
“We believe such a listing is an unnecessary bureaucratic step that will delay the cleanup of the site and could limit economic development in the Flathead Valley,” Driscoll wrote.
According to Driscoll, CFAC has hired Roux Associates to develop a Remedial Investigation Work Plan.
“CFAC is committed to completing the site assessment process as efficiently as possible while fully complying with federal and state standards to perform such an assessment,” she wrote.
In his letter, Bullock urged the EPA to work with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to move forward with cleanup.
“It is my understanding that there is sufficient data to justify an NPL listing,” Bullock wrote. “Most importantly, there is widespread local support for NPL listing of the site to ensure appropriate cleanup that will ultimately allow for redevelopment of the site.”
He asked for the agency to conduct periodic residential well sampling until there is sufficient data or cleanup to indicate that contamination of residential wells is not a potential risk.
“The plant was a critical part of the economy of Columbia Falls and the site has been idle for too long,” Bullock stated. “It has tremendous potential for redevelopment and will be an important anchor in the future of the region.”
Bullock’s letter comes over a month after Montana Sen. Jon Tester penned a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy similarly pushing for a Superfund listing for CFAC.
Negotiations broke down in recent months between CFAC, its parent company Glencore and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality over how to proceed with remediation and assessment of the site.
Recent reports from the state DEQ and the EPA have shown the site is eligible for Superfund status, but the site’s owner, Glencore, a Swiss commodities firm, has never explained what it intends to do with the property.
Both Glencore and CFAC have stated publicly that they oppose Superfund listing and recently hired their own environmental consulting firm to develop an independent remedial investigation work plan.
Potentially hazardous materials were discovered in soil, groundwater and surface water at the plant site, and cyanide contamination was found in sediment in the Flathead River.
The NPL is the list of national priorities among the known releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants throughout the United States. It is used to guide the EPA in determining which sites warrant further investigation.
The CFAC plant began producing aluminum in 1955, with production reaching 180,000 tons of aluminum by 1968. At its height, the plant employed 1,500 people and was central to the area’s economy.
When it shut down at the end of October 2009, the closure forced the layoff of nearly 90 workers as high-energy prices and poor market conditions made operations unprofitable.
If listed, past and present owners would be assigned cleanup costs; if they are unwilling to pay, the cleanup can move forward with money from the Superfund program.