The future of the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company site looks less like it will reopen and more like it will be subject to cleanup, according to city and state officials, though how and when such a project could happen is still up for debate.
Recent reports from the state Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have shown the site could be eligible for Superfund status, but the site’s owner, Swiss commodities firm Glencore, has yet to make a statement on what it would like to do with the property.
In the years following closure in 2009, politicians and local leaders have attempted to work out deals with Glencore to reopen the plant, but the site has remained shuttered.
Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who in the past has worked on deals with Glencore and Bonneville Power Company to try and get the plant up and running again, sent a letter to Glencore on June 3 asking about the company’s plans for the future of the plant.
In an interview, Tester said he would like the company’s plans in writing, but is not confident the company will respond, due to its prior lack of communication.
On April 15, EPA and DEQ officials held a town hall meeting in Columbia Falls to discuss the results of a recent study that found the land in and around the CFAC plant was contaminated with various metals and chemicals, including cyanide and fluoride.
Officials at the meeting, including EPA site assessment manager Rob Parker, said there is enough evidence to designate the plant a Superfund site but that it would not move forward without community support.
Since then, the Columbia Falls City Council has given the OK for City Manager Susan Nicosia to write in support of placing the site on the Superfund National Priority List.
The 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 in both wells were below the Safe Drinking Water Act’s allowable limits, but it was enough for the EPA to want to take additional samples west of the plant.
In a June 9 email, Parker said the results from those tests showed no cyanide in the wells, which he said wasn’t particularly surprising because groundwater flows change in the spring compared to the fall.
“Even though cyanide was not detected in residential wells in the April sampling event, EPA believes there still is a need for further investigation at the site since there is contamination in the soils and groundwater at the site, and contaminants were detected in domestic wells, Flathead River, and Cedar Creek last fall,” Parker wrote. “This additional investigation will help EPA and DEQ better understand the hydrogeology and the nature and extent of contamination in order to determine if any remediation is necessary.”
The Flathead County Commission has not committed to endorsing the Superfund designation, nor has the board rejected it. Commissioner Pam Holmquist said she’s still waiting on more data from the EPA, and that she feels the need to be cautious when approaching a project that could take years.
“There’s so many moving parts right now, and there just isn’t enough information yet,” Holmquist said.
In an interview last week, Nicosia said the results from the initial water tests were enough to prompt the city to test its main source for the city water supply, in an effort to get the most information to the public.
“We’ve never had any indication that there is a problem but we want to be able to come back to our public unequivocally and say that there’s nothing in our water supply,” Nicosia said.
The city normally tests for fluoride, but this time it ordered a whole panel of tests on the water, which should be released in the next annual water report.
There are multiple options for dealing with contaminants found at the CFAC site, Nicosia noted, and it could be handled on a state, federal or private level. At this point, she said Columbia Falls is in favor of the EPA and DEQ being involved.
Now that the site has been assessed, moving on to further action from the DEQ or EPA – such as a more in-depth remedial investigation – would require community support, including from the county.
Columbia Falls City Councilor Mike Shepard has been an outspoken critic of Glencore and said he doesn’t trust the company will make a decision in the best interest of the local economy.
“We’re concerned about whatever Glencore has in their bag of tricks,” Shepard said.
Shepard said he’s also concerned that the county commission hasn’t taken a strong stance for or against a cleanup plan, and believes any existing contamination in the groundwater or soil could leach into the Flathead River near the CFAC site.
“This thing isn’t going to heal itself,” Shepard said.
Holmquist said she’s aware of the criticisms of the commission’s stance so far on this issue, but she still plans on waiting for more information.
In the past couple of weeks, the DEQ has opened up talks with Glencore to discuss the future of the plant.
Jenny Chambers, administrator for the DEQ’s remediation division, said last week that she was in touch with Glencore, having spoken on the phone with company representatives on May 23.
The discussion was just the first, she said, and mainly focused on summarizing what has happened so far and laying out possible future options.
“It’s really hard to figure out which direction we would want to take this without understanding the interest of Glencore or CFAC directly,” Chambers said.
The next meeting with Glencore should be an in-person discussion, she said, to speak more in depth. That meeting is tentatively scheduled for later this month.
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