At the request of Montana’s two U.S. senators, the Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to conduct a site assessment at the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company plant to determine whether a Superfund designation is warranted.
In a March 26 letter to Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, Howard Cantor, the acting administrator for the EPA’s Region 8, said his agency had already “started the planning necessary to conduct a site assessment,” which could lead to cleanup of hazardous materials at the shuttered aluminum plant.
Though Cantor said it’s hard to predict precisely how long a site investigation will take because of the property’s “complexity and location,” he said his agency would act swiftly because the project is a “priority” for the EPA.
“We anticipate completing our assessment within one year, depending on available resources,” Cantor wrote.
Cantor was responding to a March 5 letter from Tester and fellow Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, in which the lawmakers called on the EPA to study whether contamination levels at the aluminum plant pose a risk to the community and potential future businesses. The senators noted that a Superfund designation would create cleanup jobs and open up new business opportunities at the 120-acre industrial site.
Tester and Baucus cited potential concerns over cyanide, zinc and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, and specifically asked for the EPA to “assess the risks posted by the solvent landfills and percolation ponds.”
The plant’s owner, Glencore, closed the facility in October 2009, citing metal market conditions and electricity prices. Tester and Baucus have worked with Glencore and Bonneville Power Administration to negotiate a power deal to reopen the plant, but Tester said recently that Glencore has been stringing him along and doubts the company has plans to fire up the smelter again.
Cantor noted in his letter that the EPA previously conducted a preliminary assessment and site inspection in 1986 and 1988, but agreed that site conditions “have likely changed” since then and it would be appropriate to conduct a reassessment with current protocols.
“This work entails gathering existing information about the production facility, surrounding potentially impacted areas, and environmental data,” Cantor wrote.
“If an actual or potential threat to human health or the environment is identified, we will collect additional environmental data to verify the presence of hazardous substances or pollutants, determine if these substances are being released to the environment, and assess if these substances have reached populations or sensitive environments.”
The letter continued: “If environmental remediation is necessary, the information gathered and documented in a Site Reassessment report will inform a conversation amongst stakeholders on potential next steps.”
Throughout the process, Cantor said the EPA’s Superfund program staff will coordinate with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and collaborate with local government officials and other stakeholders. He told Tester his agency appreciates “your inquiry on behalf of the Columbia Falls community.”
“We look forward to working with the community to address environmental concerns at the CFAC site and will share the investigation results with the stakeholders, as well as lead discussions on options for site cleanup and redevelopment.”
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