COLUMBIA FALLS – The long road toward determining what level of cleanup is warranted at the shuttered Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. plant took another turn last week when the company walked away from negotiations with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, aligning the contaminated site for remedial action under the federal Superfund program.
But the timeframe for listing and subsequent cleanup efforts remains unknown, rankling members of the community who are concerned for their safety.
“The wheels of justice in this instance move exceedingly slow,” said Columbia Falls resident and city councilor Mike Shepard, who attended a recent town hall meeting to discuss the site’s future. “I won’t live to see this come to fruition.”
Recent reports from the state Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have shown the site is eligible for Superfund status, but the site’s owner, Glencore, a Swiss commodities firm, has never explained what it intends to do with the property.
On Dec. 9, an official with the Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. plant announced that the company had ended negotiations with the DEQ due to disagreements over how to proceed with assessing and cleaning up the contaminated smelter site, which sits 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 was critical about how the DEQ had gone about the cleanup assessment, and felt the agency hadn’t provided an adequate assessment of the contamination.
DEQ officials said they thought the negotiations were nearing success until they presented CFAC and Glencore with an Administrative Order of Consent to move forward with remediation, and the company refused to sign.
“Up until a week ago we thought we might be able to reach an agreement, and then they said ‘no,’” said Jenny Chambers of the DEQ’s remediation division.
Now that CFAC is no longer negotiating with the DEQ, the EPA is at the helm of the investigation, and is working on a recommendation proposing the site for listing on the National Priorities List, a catalog of hazardous waste sites eligible for long-term remediation.
Listing would likely mean conducting additional studies to determine the extent of the cleanup required at the site, and actual cleanup activities would not begin immediately.
The community of Columbia Falls has expressed concerns regarding the toxic materials buried at the site, and at the Dec. 11 town hall meeting residents said they would like the site cleaned up so that it can be revitalized for other uses.
A timeframe for Superfund listing and subsequent cleanup efforts is unclear, but it will inevitably take years.
Rob Parker, an environmental engineer with the EPA, said agency studies have revealed that the land in and around the CFAC plant was contaminated with various metals and chemicals, including cyanide and fluoride; however, sampling from neighborhood wells did not show any detections of cyanide, though some residents fear the water could be unsafe to drink and asked to have their wells tested.
Parker urged the community to voice its support of a cleanup both to the EPA and to local and state government leaders.
“The EPA is working toward developing a recommendation to propose this site to the National Priorities List, but we do need a concurrence letter. We certainly are looking for letters of support from the city and county so we can ultimately get a resolution for this site,” Parker said. “How long will this take? The answer is we just don’t know.”
“Collectively, we want to see the site move forward with listing, and I think there is a high likelihood that it will happen,” Chambers said.
While city officials in Columbia Falls have written letters in support of a cleanup, Flathead County commissioners have yet to take a stance on the issue.
Still, even in the absence of Flathead County’s support, Julie DalSoglio of the EPA said the agency could move forward with listing given the strong interest by other stakeholders to move forward, including support from Gov. Steve Bullock, who could spur on the process by writing a letter of support.
DalSoglio said the agency allowed the negotiations between CFAC and the DEQ to continue for months, and when they fell through the EPA was prepared to step in and recommend listing on the National Priorities List.
Chas Cartwright, a former superintendent of Glacier National Park and the chairman of the Flathead Basin Commission, said the site must receive listing soon if residents expect to receive answers about the severity of the contamination.
“The sooner the EPA steps in the better because this is going to take a long time,” Cartwright said. “We support listing on the National Priorities List. We need more studies so that we can begin to define the nature of the problem and move forward simultaneously with determining how to reuse the site, whether it’s as a conservation area, a recreational trail, or other options that the community might want. But the community needs to be in the driver’s seat.”
The potentially hazardous materials were discovered in soil, groundwater and surface water at the plant site, and cyanide contamination was 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.
If listed, past and present owners would be assigned cleanup costs; if they are unwilling to pay, the cleanup can move forward with money from the Superfund program.
The listing process itself can take about a year, but it generally takes the agency an additional three to five years to determine how to clean up the site, according to the EPA.
More information on the contaminated site is available online.