COLUMBIA FALLS – With the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company’s decision to permanently close its plant and the Environmental Protection Agency taking steps to list the contaminated property as a Superfund site, it’s no surprise that business and civic leaders are concerned about the community’s economic future.
But a suite of new and innovative businesses are emerging, and as plans for continued economic growth get underway there’s an air of optimism about the city’s potential to capitalize on a groundswell of development.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, met with community and business leaders March 20 to address concerns about the proposed Superfund listing, which EPA officials announced earlier this month following news that the company was permanently closing.
CFAC’s owner, Glencore, the largest commodities trading group in the world, closed the plant in 2009, citing high electricity rates and poor aluminum market conditions. For the past six years, only a handful of employees have remained on site to maintain the mothballed 800-acre facility, which sits on a 2,500-acre property.
Tester worked for years to help broker a deal to reopen the aluminum reduction plant and expressed frustration with the waffling commitment of company officials, whose about-faces he said stymied plans to resume operations at every turn.
Despite those negotiations breaking down, the senator from Big Sandy now sees the property as “a diamond in the rough,” and says listing on the National Priorities List and a subsequent Superfund cleanup could result in local jobs and, eventually, a repurposing of the site for development. Located along the Flathead River, up the road from Glacier National Park and adjacent to the railroad, the CFAC site is in a prime location for development.
“There are already businesses that have contacted me about that property and as soon as it’s cleaned up you’re going to have people knocking down your door, because it is a diamond in the rough,” Tester told community leaders during a meeting at Freedom Bank in Columbia Falls.
Columbia Falls City Manager Susan Nicosia wondered if there’s cause to be concerned about the Superfund listing affecting the community’s viability as a destination for tourists, businesses and residents. That same concern has been a point of contention raised by CFAC officials, who firmly oppose listing, and most recently by U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Montana.
CFAC officials say they are committed to a “long term, sustainable solution” for the shuttered plant, but, after negotiations broke down with state and federal environmental agencies, hired a private environmental remediation firm to develop a Remedial Investigation Work Plan in lieu of supporting listing.
Haley Beaudry, a spokesman for CFAC, said that rather than expediting the cleanup process, EPA involvement would result in unnecessary delays and ultimately devalue the property.
“We are going to push for redevelopment of that site, however, Superfund listing will delay redevelopment for a long time,” Beaudry said. “We don’t know how long. The Superfund law is 31 years old, and some Montana sites have been on the list for that entire time. I am 100 percent sure listing would compromise the prospects for redevelopment.”
In a letter to Gov. Steve Bullock and the EPA, Zinke echoed the company’s concerns almost verbatim, flying in the face of votes of support for Superfund listing by Tester, Bullock, Columbia Falls city officials and local business leaders.
“Being listed will significantly delay much needed economic development for the Columbia Falls area,” the Whitefish Congressman stated in his letter. “Historically, NPL listings in Montana have not resulted in expeditious resolutions; instead, they have faced excessive delays and bureaucracy. Our state has 18 Superfund sites, yet not a single one has been removed in the life of the program. I believe we should revise the path forward. I urge you to support CFAC’s efforts to complete their analysis before allowing the EPA to place the site on the NPL.”
Tester and others who attended the meeting disagreed, saying they’ve completely lost faith in Glencore, having witnessed the company make a series of empty promises regarding the company’s future.
“It’s a bit Polyanna to think that this company is going to clean it up because every time I cut a deal they have turned it down,” Tester said.
“The EPA is seen as a boogie man,” he added, “but as long as [the contaminated property] sits in the condition that it’s in, it’s more of a black eye for this community.”
Don Bennett, president of Freedom Bank in Columbia Falls, said Glencore has been disingenuous through the years. As environmental agencies work to identify the parties responsible for the contamination, he said Glencore has refused to accept liability and pays lip service to the community only when it needs to placate concerned residents and business owners.
“I’ve dealt with them for 15 years and they will say whatever they need to say to appease everybody,” Bennett said. “It’s a dollars-and-cents business and if it’s going to cost them money they will drag it out as long as possible.”
Columbia Falls Mayor Don Barnhart asked Tester to meet with Zinke and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, to persuade them to support listing in an effort to build momentum behind the cleanup.
“It just gives us more hammers,” Barnhart said.
Despite the frustrations with Glencore, local entrepreneurs painted a bright future for Columbia Falls, which is bristling with new businesses.
City officials have been developing an urban renewal plan that would include a tax increment finance district, which is a mechanism used to spur economic redevelopment. If established, the TIF district would allow the city to direct property taxes that accrue with new development to urban renewal or redevelopment activities. Kalispell and Whitefish have successfully established TIF districts to help fund sizeable revitalization projects.
O’Brien Byrd owns O’Brien’s Liquor & Wine and recently moved to a new location on the corner of U.S. Highway 2 and First Avenue West, where he refurbished the old Western Building Center lumber shed to host a new community market. It will accommodate 60 vendors and seven farmers.
“My vision and my goal is to bring renewed energy to Columbia Falls,” Byrd said. “What is about to happen to Columbia Falls is pretty exciting.”
Darin Fisher is preparing to open a new microbrewery in Columbia Falls, with plans of opening in July or August.
Casey Malmquist is the founder and general manager of the Columbia Falls-based SmartLam, a cross-laminated timber (CLT) facility that has grown into the largest CLT plant in the world since opening two years ago.
“These are sustainable, renewable products that are helping us get back into the woods and support responsible harvesting,” Malmquist said.
Stacey Schnebel, president of the Columbia Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, said scores of business owners would express the same optimism.
“If this room was filled with one-hundred business leaders and community members you would hear an overwhelming energy,” she said. “This is the time for us to act.”
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