Negotiations Break Down Between CFAC, DEQ

Public meeting will be held Thurday, Dec. 11 in Columbia Falls to discuss cleanup of defunct aluminum plant site

By Tristan Scott

An official with the shuttered Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. plant announced Dec. 9 that the company had ended negotiations with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality due to disagreements over how to proceed with assessing and cleaning up the contaminated smelter site along the Flathead River near Columbia Falls.

Haley Beaudry, the former external affairs manager for CFAC, wrote in a press release that the company “is committed to assessing soil and groundwater impacts at its Columbia Falls site, but has ended discussions” with DEQ after refusing the terms of an Administrative Order of Consent for the investigation.

Beaudry said CFAC, which is owned by the Swiss-based global commodities firm Glencore, remains committed to assessing conditions at the site, and has hired its own environmental consultant to do so. However, Beaudry was critical about how the DEQ had gone about the cleanup assessment.

“It was more than just some dispute. The DEQ said it would write the white paper and discuss the project and instead of doing that they came back with a consent decree and said ‘sign this’,” he said. “When you go in for a basic check-up and the doctor says lie down we’re going to begin surgery, you’d probably take a step back. No one thinks the analysis has been sufficient. We think there needs to be more sufficient analysis.”

The press release states: “In early summer 2014, DEQ undertook the task of writing a ‘white paper,’ which remains undone. Instead, DEQ submitted an ‘Administrative Order on Consent’ to CFAC and demanded immediate acceptance by CFAC. Under these conditions and after working diligently to establish a joint resolution with DEQ, CFAC is no longer negotiating with DEQ regarding the investigation.”

The announcement comes before a Thursday, Dec. 11 public meeting on the CFAC cleanup hosted by the DEQ and EPA. The meeting will take place at 6 p.m. at the Little Theater at the Columbia Falls High School.

Recent reports from the DEQ and the EPA have shown the site is likely eligible for Superfund status, and city officials in Columbia Falls have written letters in support of a cleanup.

Julie DalSoglio of the EPA said the agency allowed the negotiations between CFAC and the DEQ to continue for months; if they fell through, she said, EPA could step in and recommend listing on the National Priorities List, a catalogue of hazardous waste sites in the United States eligible for long-term remedial cleanup under the Superfund program.

DalSoglio said the EPA could move forward with listing given the strong interest by other stakeholders, as well as support from Gov. Steve Bullock.

Other issues that will be discussed at the public meeting include future uses of the CFAC property, including possible recreation and conservation issues.

DEQ’s administrative order, sent to the company in July, cites the EPA’s sampling and investigation of the plant due to its decades-long handling of hazardous materials, including cyanide and zinc. The potentially hazardous materials were discovered in soil, groundwater and surface water at the plant site and cyanide contamination found in sediment in the Flathead River.

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.

Beaudry says it has hired the specialty environmental consultant Roux Associates to develop its independent site assessment plan.