When Columbia Falls Mayor Don Barnhart describes his community, he portrays a city bubbling with vitality and untold potential. He also renders a stubborn, hardscrabble town with a proud blue-collar past and an inordinate degree of loyalty to its guts and grit.
Columbia Falls is unabashedly authentic, he says, warts and all.
The combination of those characteristics is what the mayor believes makes his community unique, better equipping the town and its residents to endure hard times and bounce back stronger, forever booming after even the most devastating busts.
That’s why Barnhart is unfazed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision last week to list the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company property as a federal Superfund site, even as some of the town’s residents, as well as company brass and a handful of political representatives, balk at the designation, calling the federal environmental cleanup program ineffective, improvident and stigmatizing.
But not Barnhart.
“This town is never going to become something it’s not,” Barnhart said. “We are who we are. So whether it’s Superfund or something else, we’re going to get it done our way. We are going to clean it up and move on, and that’s all that matters.”
On Sept. 9, the Environmental Protection Agency added the CFAC property to the Superfund program’s National Priorities List, designating it for critical cleanup among the nation’s most contaminated sites. Nine other properties across the U.S. were also formally listed as Superfund sites.
And while the listing is designed to ensure a thorough cleanup, it is something of a scarlet letter for the once-thrumming aluminum plant along the Flathead River near Glacier National Park, a critical piece of Columbia Falls’ industrial backbone and blue-collar identity, which for years stood out as the region’s largest employer.
But the deserted manufacturing site is also a blemish on a proud landscape and the source of unresolved environmental and public health concerns, leading the federal government to trigger its foremost hazardous waste cleanup program.
According to Joe Vranka, the EPA’s Superfund unit supervisor in Montana, the program will ensure that the property’s owner, Glencore, a global commodities trading and mining giant based in Switzerland, and possibly other former owners, will be held financially accountable for cleaning up any hazardous materials and addressing other environmental impacts. The program will also devote grants and other resources to the community to help spur redevelopment and revitalization at the CFAC site, while facilitating a Community Advisory Group to engage residents.
The actual cleanup plan will only be developed after the initial remedial site investigation is complete, a process slated to wrap up around 2020, Vranka said.
Barnhart acknowledges that the EPA’s involvement doesn’t fast-track the cleanup, but he and other stakeholders take a measure of comfort in knowing that the Superfund designation assures Glencore’s accountability, particularly after the company earned a reputation around the world for failing to voluntarily complete hazardous cleanups, and locally for flip-flopping on its intent to reopen the plant.
“Nothing is going to happen fast,” Barnhart said. “You have to have patience. But before I’m done and gone, I think there will be something great on that property, maybe an industrial park with good-paying jobs. I’m not sure what, but there will be something that’s positive for this community.”
Glencore closed the plant in 2009, citing high electricity rates and poor aluminum market conditions, and permanently shuttered the facility in March 2015 after breaking a string of promises to reopen.
News of the permanent closure soured residents and former aluminum plant workers who held out hope that the facility would reopen and reanimate the downtrodden community after the recession.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester remains dubious of Glencore’s intentions, particularly after spending years trying to broker a deal that would allow the plant to start up again before encouraging the EPA to list the site under Superfund.
Other skeptics of Glencore have come around since the company began acting in good faith early last year, committing $4 million to the investigation and future cleanup and raising hopes that a Superfund designation was unnecessary.
Even though the company insists it’s committed to a “long-term, sustainable solution” for the shuttered plant, the majority of the stakeholders involved in the process leading up to listing felt it was for the best.
“It’s kind of an unhappy victory — a victory not to be celebrated,” said Joe Russell, public health officer for the Flathead City-County Health Department. “I am not standing up here saying this is a victory for the people or for public health, but I do know that it is going to keep the public process moving forward. It gives us assurance that the process is going to move forward. It puts the full force of the federal government behind keeping this thing moving forward.”
Russell emphasized that the polarizing debate of whether or not to list the CFAC site under Superfund is moot, and the EPA never had a choice. Although CFAC negotiated with the EPA for the Superfund Alternative Process, which uses the same investigation, cleanup process and standards that are used for sites listed on the NPL, such a process requires the responsible party to fully commit.
“An alternative designation only works when the responsible party is all in. And we don’t have a responsible party here,” Russell said. “Glencore is not taking full responsibility for this site on its own. And as long as they’re not all in, the EPA knows that it has to go through with the listing. We don’t want to get four years down the line and all of a sudden realize we have nothing to cover these costs. From a purely regulatory perspective, there was no other alternative to listing.”
Russell also dismissed the argument that a Superfund designation would stymie economic growth in Columbia Falls by stigmatizing the community, pointing to examples of Superfund sites in Somers and Whitefish that have not been a deterrent to growth.
“Those communities aren’t suffering,” Russell said. “They’re thriving.”
Erin Sexton, a research scientist at the Flathead Lake Biological Station of the University of Montana who participated in CFAC’s Community Liaison Panel, welcomed the Superfund designation because it places the financial onus on the polluter while bolstering the objective authority of the EPA, rather than caching all the eggs in CFAC’s basket.
“This gives us the insurance that we needed, and which we couldn’t get from a CFAC-driven cleanup process,” she said. “I know it’s not reason to celebrate when you have a Superfund site designated in your landscape, but if you already have a landscape that qualifies for Superfund then it is a positive development.”
Pat Munday, a professor at Montana Tech in Butte, is a historian who for years studied the political and social dynamics surrounding Superfund operations. He said that although the program is imperfect and can lead to delays, it has been extremely effective at holding corporations accountable.
It also adds a prodigious tool to the community’s toolbox in terms of providing resources to facilitate community engagement.
“One of my hopes is that Columbia Falls follows the model of other successful Superfund sites and forms a local citizens’ group,” Munday said. “It will be critical to get local stakeholders involved from all corners of the issue, from real estate to business to the environment and recreation. It gives the community some directional force and a voice that they wouldn’t have otherwise, and it also helps the community push the issue along and hold the agency’s feet to the fire and not let them be too relaxed.”
Federal officials proposed adding the CFAC site to the NPL on March 26, 2015, and the EPA received 77 public comments on the potential listing, a wide majority expressing support for the Superfund cleanup.
Among those to support listing were the Columbia Falls City Council, Gateway to Glacier Trail, National Park Service, Glacier National Park, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, Flathead Basin Commission, several local business owners and river guides, and a number of other private citizens, including current and former residents and frequent vacationers to the area.
Chas Cartwright, a former superintendent of Glacier National Park who serves on the Flathead Basin Commission, said he appreciated Glencore’s willingness to come to the table and restore some of the community’s faith, but the iron-clad authority of Superfund designation is more binding.
“It’s the old adage of trust but verify,” Cartwright said. “And I’m not so sure that based on a couple years of work that the company is always going to be at the table. We already know that some of the contaminants in the ground are going to present problems, and I think they are more likely to be rigorous and thorough if they have the structure and associated funding to really come up with a good plan. Because if you don’t have a good plan, you are likely not going to have good results.”
“There is no doubt in my mind that going the Superfund route was the absolute best way to go,” he added.
Mark Johnson, president of the Columbia Falls Chamber of Commerce, said his board members had prepared for a Superfund designation by discussing the community’s vision for the future of the CFAC property, as well as the future of Columbia Falls in the next 10 years.
It’s a difficult discussion, he said, because it forces community leaders to accept that CFAC’s closure cost the city nearly 1,500 good-paying jobs, while the timber company Weyerhaeuser’s recent closure of two mills jettisoned an additional 200 jobs.
The harshness of that economic reality comes at a time of significant economic growth in Columbia Falls as new businesses and young families settle there.
“We are a community in transition from an extraction-based economy to something else. What that is we are still trying to figure out, but we are eager to embrace it,” Johnson said. “We want to be the first Superfund site in the state of Montana that comes off of the National Priorities List. We want this process to go as efficiently, thoroughly and as quickly as possible, and that is going to require every community stakeholder be engaged in the process. We are going to make sure that everyone involved hears our voices and that there is no dragging of feet.”