News & Features

Tester Voices Frustration Over Glencore

Senator says global company never intended to reopen shuttered Columbia Falls Aluminum Company plant

 After fighting for years to broker a deal that would help reopen the shuttered Columbia Falls Aluminum Company, Sen. Jon Tester said he’s lost faith in its parent company Glencore.

Since the plant closed five years ago, Tester has prompted discussions between the Bonneville Power Administration and Glencore in an effort to broker a power purchase agreement that would enable the CFAC aluminum plant to begin operating again.

Those negotiations have plodded along for years due to bleak market conditions, as well as volatile metal and power prices, and Tester now says the Swiss commodities firm never had any good-faith intentions of restarting the facility.

“I don’t have a lot of love for Glencore,” he said recently in an interview with the Beacon. “They have never had any intentions of opening that thing back up, ever.”

Glencore continued to reject the negotiations, citing economic reasons, and Tester’s inquiries were eventually met by radio silence, he said.

Tester compared Glencore’s corporate demeanor to that of Plum Creek, which shut down a timber mill in 2009 and kept its promise to reopen when the housing industry started back up, and Burlington Northern, which has been transparent about its cleanup projects in the Flathead Valley and its increasing loads of oil freight.

“The good companies and the good operators, they don’t operate like Glencore,” Tester said.

Tester has since shifted his attention to a new economic driver for Columbia Falls.

Last year, the Democratic senator called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to evaluate contamination levels at the shuttered Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. plant, hoping to determine whether the 120-acre industrial area poses a risk to the community.

Recent reports from the state Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA have shown the site could be eligible for Superfund status, but Tester said he’d like to see the community of Columbia Falls lead the charge.

“I think Columbia Falls ought to be driving the bus on this,” he said. “It has to be community driven.”

If the site was declared a Superfund site, the designation could create new jobs cleaning up hazardous materials and support new business opportunities for the region’s economy, Tester said.

While city officials have written letters in support of a cleanup, Flathead County commissioners have yet to take a stance on the issue.

The EPA investigated the plant due to its decades-long handling of hazardous materials, including cyanide and zinc. The CFAC plant began producing aluminum in 1955, with production reaching 180,000 tons of aluminum by 1968. At its height, the plant employed 1,500 people and was central to the area’s economy.

When it shut down at the end of October 2009, the closure forced the layoff of nearly 90 workers as high energy prices and poor market conditions made operations unprofitable.

In April, 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. The EPA advised CFAC that the follow up sampling from the neighborhood wells did not contain any detections of cyanide.

Tester said he will continue to work to persuade Glencore to negotiate with BPA if the community wants, but so far he’s only run up against brick walls.

“If they want me to keep fighting Glencore, I will support the community in what they want me to do,” he said. “But there is only so much that can happen.”