COLUMBIA FALLS — The mighty industrial plant along the Flathead River, once a shining example of blue-collar prowess and a proud economic generator, is fading from the landscape.
Flaking metal and rust now overrun the 960-acre Columbia Falls Aluminum Company site. Buildings that once produced some of the finest aluminum, mostly to supply generations of Americans with tinfoil but even to assemble early stealth bombers, have dimmed in degrees of gray and are toppling one by one. Many of the same men who once worked here, laid-off iron workers and other roughnecks, are now helping tear it down.
The collapse is nearly complete. An era defined by the sheen of aluminum now mostly survives in pale photos and in the talk of old men. The greater legacy of this shuttered facility on the outskirts of town looms with uncertainty along with consequences waiting to be unearthed.
“There definitely is a sadness there,” said Mike Shepard, a former employee at the aluminum plant who has turned up in the empty parking lot on occasion in recent weeks to watch the site come down.
“To this day, every one of us who worked there, we still talk about how much fun we had when we worked there. Good people. Lifelong friends. It was good pay. It was a great place to work.”
Shepard moved here from Pittsburgh to become the purchasing manager at the aluminum plant from 1979 to 1985. In those days, the parking lot was always full as the site hummed with activity.
“We made lots of money. It was quite a shot locally for the economy,” Shepard said.
Like a ghost town, the plant today stands in sharp contrast to its historical visage. From its famous opening in 1955 through the boom years of the 1960s and 70s, the facility fueled this rural corner of Montana with over 1,200 jobs — almost half the population of Columbia Falls in those days — and millions of dollars in new economic investment. Just to build the plant over two years, the original owners, the Anaconda Company, spent $65 million, equivalent to $580 million today after adjusting for inflation. At its pinnacle, the plant could produce 360 million pounds of aluminum per year.
Now the demolition of the CFAC site marks the beginning of a new saga defined by ecological concerns and the potential for a long-term cleanup under the federal Superfund program.
Rather than nostalgia for a bygone era, questions of just how bad the site is contaminated, and to what extent the impact might have migrated into the surrounding watershed, grip the community with anxiety.
“It’s a question and as long as there’s a question we will have that dark cloud of uncertainty floating over our head,” Shepard, now a member of the Columbia Falls City Council, said.
While community members debate the possibility of Superfund listing, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is further studying the amount of contamination on-site. But the findings up to now have already qualified it for the National Priorities List, a register of hazardous waste sites that is precursor for the Superfund program. The agency will decide in the fall whether the property should be approved for Superfund cleanup.
It’s a polarizing topic.
Some are afraid of the so-called Superfund stigma that could hurt the town’s tourism and real estate industries and the potential for the EPA to extend the time it takes to finish the cleanup.
Republican U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, a Whitefish native, toured the property with media last week, echoing his opposition for Superfund designation and expressing optimism for the site’s future.
“I think if the site can be cleaned up rapidly without Superfund, that’s the correct path. The more bureaucracy that’s involved, it only lengthens the process,” Zinke said. “There’s a downside of having a Superfund site. There is a stigmatization. Once you get in it’s really difficult to get out.”
Zinke said he favors the state Department of Environmental Quality taking the reins as the lead agency overseeing the cleanup rather than the EPA.
The Flathead County commissioners have expressed similar opposition for Superfund status, saying they support the Superfund Alternative, which proceeds with cleanup but cannot use federal Superfund money and must have a responsible party willing to perform the remedial action.
A year ago, Glencore, CFAC’s parent company and a global commodities trading and mining giant based in Switzerland, ended negotiations with the DEQ over how to proceed with assessing and cleaning up the contaminated site, spurring the most outspoken support for Superfund. In November, the firm reached an agreement to launch a $4 million remedial investigation into the full scope of contamination. The investigation process is expected to take four to five years, starting with initial surveying in April followed by the drilling of 43 sampling wells from May through September, according to CFAC officials. Groundwater sampling would begin in the fall.
The Columbia Falls City Council recently voted to draft a letter reaffirming its universal commitment to cleaning up CFAC. Mayor Don Barnhart has said he supports the alternative approach as the best way to clean up the plant without the pitfalls of the federal program.
While some have said Glencore’s latest agreement should negate the need for Superfund, others believe the federal program would ensure the company sticks to finishing the project.
Gov. Steve Bullock and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, both Democrats, have pushed for Superfund listing from the outset as the best route for proper cleanup and mitigating possible environmental risks.
The EPA received 77 public comments in early 2015 on the proposed listing and a majority expressed support for the Superfund cleanup, according to public records of the submitted comments.
“There is absolutely no reason to believe that (Glencore) will clean up this site properly on their own. Therefore, we must rely on the EPA to insure this is done properly and as quickly as possible,” Tom Kurdy said in a comment to the EPA.
“The potentially adverse impacts to human health and environmental quality, due to the current levels of contamination in surface waters, groundwater and soils, pose a significant risk to the community,” Thompson Smith, chair of the Flathead Basin Commission, stated in a public comment submitted to the EPA.
Concerns are centered on possible ecological hazards lingering throughout the property and potentially leaching into the ground and surface waters or even the nearby Flathead River, which flows south to Flathead Lake and is a keystone water source.
During those decades of bustling commerce and mass production, large amounts of hazardous waste, including contaminants such as cyanide and fluoride, and metals, such as arsenic, chromium, lead and selenium, spilled or were buried on-site.
“Sometimes it went to the dump. Sometimes the service crew would bury it. Nobody really knows where a lot of that stuff went,” Shepard said.
Original plans were to build the plant along Rose Crossing in Kalispell. Instead the property near the base of Teakettle Mountain, with its proximity to Hungry Horse Dam, was deemed better. For industrial developments in the pre-EPA era, environmental regulations were loose and consideration for impacts to ecological sources, such as a major river like the Flathead, was mostly disregarded. The harmful effects of sources such as asbestos, widely used in construction projects for decades, were also all but unknown at the time.
Spent pot liners containing hazardous materials were stored in unlined repositories as early as 1955, according to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. In 1980, the site was registered as a “large quantity hazardous waste generator and transporter.” Four years later, officials from the Montana Department of Health and Sciences conducted a preliminary site assessment that found further evidence that the plant was generating hazardous waste. In 1989, the site was placed on the DEQ Hazardous Waste Program list, and in 1993 the DEQ required a groundwater investigation to determine sources of cyanide in the Flathead River.
Sediment samples collected from the Flathead River and surface water samples collected from Cedar Creek, which runs below ground through the CFAC site and downtown Columbia Falls before surfacing south of town, show the two water bodies have received contaminants, including metals, and cyanide.
The EPA does not have any data indicating the city’s water supply is affected. The agency sampled residential wells near CFAC on three occasions and initially found contaminants. During the first round of sampling in 2013, cyanide was detected in two wells, although the concentrations were below the agency’s recommended level. Further sampling of 30 other wells over the following year determined there was no further cyanide or other contaminants above risk-based benchmarks.
An on-site assessment detected various metals, cyanide and fluoride in groundwater down gradient from three source areas. These contaminants were found at levels above allowable limits established through the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials have raised concerns about negative impacts on wildlife and habitat in the area.
The Flathead River supports a robust fish population, including the federally threatened bull trout and a state species of concern, the westslope cutthroat trout. FWP officials say the area around CFAC is also home to a diverse wildlife population, including deer, elk, bears, wolverines, bobcats, furbearers and birds, such as bald eagles.
Jeff Hagener, FWP chief, said in a letter to the EPA that there is ample evidence of contaminants emitted from the smelter over the years.
These identified contaminants “are likely to have lethal and sub-lethal effects (on aquatic species),” he said. “These could impact respiration, liver function, and metabolism in fish, in turn causing reductions in growth and survival. The contaminants present may also have serious human health implications for those consuming fish from these waters.”
FWP has similar concerns about human consumption of wildlife from CFAC property and surrounding lands.
“Public hunting occurs in and around the CFAC site and hunters routinely harvest deer and elk in the area,” Hagener said.
He added, “If the contaminants pose a risk to wildlife or human health, we recommend that deer and elk be tested to insure they are safe for human consumption and that the deer and elk populations are not adversely impacted from contaminant exposure.”
CFAC officials tested residential wells on two occasions in 2015. There were no detections of cyanide while two wells had levels of fluoride that were slightly above the accepted benchmark but well below drinking water standards, according to the company.
The EPA has said it is uncertain of the full extent of contamination or whether hazardous materials are migrating away from the site.
“The question is at what point will it be leaching into the river, if it’s not already leaching into the Flathead River?” Shepard said.
In the meantime, crews have been dismantling and demolishing everything above ground at the large property that has sat idle for nearly seven years. Mountains of scrap metal and other material, including over 499,000 pounds of asbestos waste, have been shipped off site by truck and train.
Up next is the towering paste plant, known as the Black Castle among those who worked inside making briquettes out of coal tar, emerging painted in dark soot like the building itself. A large piece of machinery that reaches nearly 100 feet in the air is en route with a shear that will raze the dark structure over the next two months.
After that the largest single building in Montana — a 1.75 million-square-foot behemoth 40 acres in size — will disappear piece by piece, along with the 451 aluminum reduction cells that sit inside, each weighing 60 tons apiece and filled with toxic chemicals.
Shepard and other former workers have asked if they could be on-site to watch the Black Castle come down.
“I’d like to stand there and take some pictures,” he said.
There are plenty of good memories. Yet a lingering sense of regret also hangs in the air.
“I lay at bed at night wondering if there is something we could’ve done or I could’ve done differently,” Shepard said.
It doesn’t matter now; what’s done is done.
“I would just assume the cleanup gets done sooner than later. If it takes Superfund, let’s get it announced, go through the hysteria and get on with it. If it’s the alternative, let’s get on with it,” Shepard said. “The important thing is getting this thing cleaned up as soon and as fast as we can.”