Environmental Protection Agency Releases CFAC Site Study

By Beacon Staff

Officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are holding a public meeting April 15 to discuss the results of an environmental assessment at the shuttered Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. plant site. The informational meeting will be held in the Columbia Falls Fire Hall from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Representatives from the EPA will share the results of the study to inform the public about the agency’s environmental remediation programs, as well as to discuss potential next steps and the future of the plant, which has been closed since 2009.

The data is meant to inform government officials, residents and other stakeholders as the fate of the site remains in limbo.

The site assessment began last year at the behest of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, in an effort to determine whether a Superfund designation is warranted at the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company plant.

According to EPA site assessment manager Rob Parker, the study did not conclude whether the smelter site should be torn down or cleaned up, but data showing elevated levels of metals means the site is technically eligible for placement on the federal Superfund’s National Priority List.

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. They cited potential concerns over cyanide, zinc and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, and specifically asked for the EPA to “assess the risks posed by the solvent landfills and percolation ponds.”

EPA officials identified three sources with a high potential to cause environmental contamination – the landfill and sludge pond area, the north percolation pond and the south percolation pond – and in September 2013 collected samples of groundwater, surface water, sediment and surface soils. The results are detailed in a 271-page report.

“Analytical results indicate groundwater samples down-gradient of these sources have above-background concentrations of metals, including cyanide, as well as fluoride,” according to the report.

The study also included sampling of nearby residential wells, in which cyanide was detected at concentrations below EPA’s maximum contaminant level and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s water quality standards, meaning the levels are too low to warrant ordering residents not to drink it.

Sample results from the Flathead River also indicated elevated concentrations of cyanide, fluoride and manganese, while sample results from Cedar Creek indicated elevated levels of metals, including cyanide.

The plant’s owner, Glencore, closed the facility in October 2009, citing metal market conditions and electricity prices. Tester and Baucus had worked with Glencore and Bonneville Power Administration to negotiate a power deal to reopen the plant, but Tester said publicly at the time that Glencore had been stringing him along, and that he doubted the company had plans to fire up the smelter again.

In a March 26 letter to Tester, Howard Cantor, then the acting administrator for the EPA’s Region 8, said the site was a priority for the EPA.

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.

Find more information or read the report online at http://www2.epa.gov/region8/columbia-falls-aluminum-reduction-plant

RELATED: ‘Glencore Has Been Playing Us’

RELATED: EPA to Assess Superfund Potential at CFAC Plant

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