The Environmental Protection Agency is ready to designate the shuttered Columbia Falls Aluminum Company plant a Superfund site, but it’s looking for public support before conducting a more extensive investigation into the contamination. EPA and Montana Department of Environmental Quality officials hosted a meeting on April 15 in Columbia Falls to discuss a recently completed study that found the land around the site is contaminated with various metals and chemicals, including cyanide and fluoride.
“We want to begin an ongoing dialogue with the community about this site,” said Rob Parker, the EPA’s site assessment manger.
EPA officials on April 15 revealed that their study found various contaminations around the site, especially in the north and south percolation ponds and the plant’s landfill area. Cyanide, arsenic, lead and fluoride were all found in the groundwater in and around the plant. The EPA also sampled water in five residential wells in a nearby neighborhood, called “Aluminum City,” and cyanide was found in two of the wells. The concentrations of cyanide in both wells, however, were below the Safe Drinking Water Act’s allowable limits. Following that discovery, the EPA took additional well samples April 9. Those tests are still being processed.
The testing also indicated that both the Flathead River and Cedar Creek were impacted by cyanide and manganese. Additional testing will be completed to determine the extent of river contamination and whether it has impacted the fish population.
EPA officials said adding the site to the National Priorities List would designate it as a Superfund site and result in a more extensive investigation, but that won’t happen without local support. Victor Ketellapper, team leader of the site assessment program, said residents should contact local, state and federal leaders and share their thoughts on the project.
“Through this assessment we have the data to name it a Superfund site,” he said.
Federal, state and local officials attended the meeting held at the Columbia Falls Fire Department. There were no representatives from Glencore.
Everyone from the public who spoke up was in support of cleaning the site, including city councilor Mike Shepard, who worked at CFAC in the 1970s.
“I think this meeting was long overdue,” he said. “Those of us who have lived in Columbia Falls for a long time have known that the CFAC site was a ticking time bomb.”
The Anaconda Company opened the CFAC aluminum plant, located just north of Columbia Falls along the Flathead River, in 1955 and the plant operated under various owners until 2009, when the current owner, Glencore, closed it. In the years following the closure, politicians and local leaders have attempted to work out deals with the Swiss commodities firm to reopen the plant, but the site has remained shuttered and many doubt it will ever reopen.
In late 2012, Dee Brown, a Republican state senator from Hungry Horse, went before the Flathead County Commission and said the 120-acre CFAC site should be cleaned up and redeveloped. Soon after, at the urging of Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, the EPA began studying the site in 2013.
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