Representatives from Glencore told the Flathead County Commission this week they are still trying to do everything they can to restart the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company plant, which has been shuttered for nearly four years.
Glencore, a large commodities firm based out of Switzerland, purchased the CFAC plant in 1999 and closed it in October 2009, citing poor metal market conditions and high electricity rates. There have been efforts since then to renegotiate a power contract with Bonneville Power Administration in the hopes of firing up the plant again.
The representatives’ visit to the Flathead comes at a time when local officials and lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, have expressed frustration with Glencore, saying the company has strung the community along about its intentions to reopen the plant and has not been transparent.
The Environmental Protection Agency, at the urging of Tester and fellow Sen. Max Baucus, is preparing to conduct a site assessment to see if a Superfund designation is warranted. Such a designation would lead to an extensive cleanup process on the 120-acre industrial site, located along the Flathead River.
Matt Lucke, one of three Glencore representatives to travel to the Flathead, said recent press coverage has highlighted the need for his company to improve its community outreach, prompting the April 24 appearance before the county commission. The press coverage has been centered around local frustrations with Glencore and the EPA site assessment.
“We recognize we need to do a better job communicating with the community,” he said.
Zach Mayer, one of Glencore’s representatives, said progress has been made in power contract negotiations with BPA. Mayer said BPA has put a nine-year offer on the table with favorable conditions, particularly the contract’s duration.
“We think that the deal is a step in the right direction and would allow us to restart,” Mayer said.
But the aluminum market continues to be a deterrent to restarting, Lucke said, with lagging prices and high production output from China.
“It’s a fairly bleak outlook as far as the supply side,” he said.
Last month, Tester said Glencore has gotten the power contract offer it sought on multiple occasions over the past several years but didn’t follow through with reopening the plant. After that happened multiple times, Tester said he felt like he was “getting played” and that Glencore’s primary motivation is profit maximization, not providing jobs.
Frustrated by the power contract negotiations, Tester wrote a letter with Baucus to the EPA calling on the agency to conduct a site assessment and look into whether contamination at the site poses a risk. The senators’ letter asked the EPA to study levels of cyanide, zinc and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, and assess the solvent landfills and percolation ponds.
Howard Cantor, the acting administrator for the EPA’s Region 8, responded with a March 26 letter agreeing to conduct the site assessment and calling it a high priority.
“We anticipate completing our assessment within one year, depending on available resources,” Cantor wrote.
If the site is given a Superfund designation, the EPA can require companies that contributed to the contamination to pay for the cleanup. Tester said Superfund cleanup would provide jobs and open the doors to new businesses.
“Bottom line is this: It’s a piece of infrastructure that I hate to lose but the fact is we’ve been strung along on this,” Tester said in a March interview. “Let’s get it cleaned up.”
Steve Wright, CFAC’s environmental manager, told the county commission that the EPA will visit the site in June. He pointed out that the EPA already conducted a site assessment in the late 1980s.
Wright accompanied the Glencore representatives at the April 24 meeting, along with former CFAC spokesman Haley Beaudry and former plant operations manager Bob Smollack. Pam Holmquist and Gary Krueger were the only commissioners present. Cal Scott was absent.
Smollack lamented that press coverage has focused on the negatives rather than positives and stressed that Glencore hasn’t abandoned the plant. He said the EPA’s effort to assess the site for a possible Superfund designation is “one of the worst things that could happen.”
Beaudry also expressed his hope for firing up the plant and providing jobs in the community. Smollack and Beaudry have worked as CFAC advocates in recent years, though they are not on the plant’s payroll.
“We want to get that plant restarted,” Beaudry said. “That’s the purpose of that plant. That’s the highest purpose of that property.”
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