News & Features

EPA to Release Initial Findings from CFAC Investigation

Site data will provide first real insight into the level of environmental contamination lingering at industrial property

The Environmental Protection Agency has gathered the initial data from the remedial investigation at the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company site and will release the results in the coming weeks, shedding light on unknown contamination levels and the lengthy Superfund cleanup process that looms on the horizon.

The federal agency is preparing to announce the initial findings from site samples that were collected in the last year, according to an EPA spokesperson. A community meeting is tentatively set for the end of April in Columbia Falls and an exact date will be announced soon.

The results of the samples will provide the first real insight into the amount of environmental contamination lingering in the water and soil at the former industrial site on the outskirts of Columbia Falls along the Flathead River.

As a large developer of aluminum from 1955 to 2009, the aluminum plant created significant quantities of spent potliner material — federally listed as hazardous waste — as a byproduct of the smelting process. An initial site evaluation indicated groundwater and surface water had been contaminated with cyanide, fluoride and various metals, leading the federal agency to designate CFAC a Superfund site on the National Priorities List in September 2016. Crews have been collecting soil, river sediment and ground and surface water samples across the property as part of the latest investigation.

The EPA’s remedial investigation, in cooperation with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, will identify the exact size and scope of the contamination. By 2020, the EPA is expected to have the finalized results and proceed with developing a cleanup plan for the property.

Anxiety about the potential ecological hazards stemming from the 960-acre property has persisted for decades, and a new report shows that community members’ concerns center on the possible risks to human health and the environment as well as the consequences on the local economy due to the Superfund designation.

The EPA on March 16 released the first draft of a community involvement plan that outlines the complex and comprehensive process that is underway at the property. The plan includes the initial feedback from community members who participated in outreach efforts and explained their primary concerns with CFAC and the federal Superfund program.

»»» Click here to read the EPA’s community involvement plan for the CFAC property

The 36-page draft report says community members are worried about a number of issues related to the investigation and cleanup, which is estimated to last several years. The EPA is still collecting input for the community involvement plan, which can be found online or at the Columbia Falls library.

The concerns include:

Human Health

Community members are concerned about the contamination on site and how it may affect people’s health, the report says. Community members would like to have educational materials about the site conditions to better understand any risks associated with living in the area and recommendations for minimizing potential contact with site contamination. The report also says people have been observed accessing the area despite “No Trespassing” signs, creating concerns about contact with contamination.

Cleanup

Residents want the cleanup to be thorough, protective, lasting and timely, according to the report. Community members are concerned about potential negative effects on the surrounding area, including the transfer of hazardous asbestos and other contaminants. The lengthy process of the investigation and looming cleanup has also fueled frustration, the report said.

Community Involvement

Residents want to stay informed and engaged in the Superfund process and would like regular updates from the EPA, the report said.

The Economy

As the lengthy investigation and cleanup commences and receives attention, residents are worried about the potential damaging impact on the local economy, according to the report. The site’s listing could “stigmatize the area,” some people said.

Water

Water quality and access to clean water are community priorities and protecting those assets is important, according to the report. People requested detailed information about the contaminants identified in the water and more information about potential human health risks, including impacts on residential wells and the city’s water infrastructure system.

Air

Residents want to know about potential historical impacts from the CFAC facility on local air quality.

Watershed

Residents are concerned about potential migration of site contaminants that could have broader watershed impacts, the report says. The Flathead River is part of the Columbia River basin.

Wildlife

Residents are worried about the potential health impacts on fish and other wildlife, including winter habitat for elk near CFAC, the report says.

Future Land Use

Community members would like to know more about how and if the CFAC site could be reused in the future, according to the report. Several people said that doing something productive with the land should be a priority.

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