The Columbia Falls Aluminum Company will lead a comprehensive investigation into the environmental contamination in and around its shuttered aluminum plant along the Flathead River.
The investigation is expected to lay the groundwork for an eventual cleanup of the 960-acre industrial site northeast of Columbia Falls. CFAC and the Environmental Protection Agency announced the agreement on Nov. 30.
“This agreement will help us fully identify the nature and extent of contamination and begin to address threats to human health and the environment at the Columbia Falls Aluminum Plant site,” Shaun McGrath, EPA’s regional administrator in Denver, stated in a press release. “We are encouraged that the company has committed to an aggressive investigation of the contamination in a legally binding agreement.”
As part of the agreement, CFAC and its parent company Glencore would cover all costs related to the investigation. It would also reimburse the EPA for all costs incurred while overseeing the project.
Work is expected to begin next year with the instillation of wells on the aluminum plant site to test the soil and ground water. Previous tests have detected contaminants like cyanide, fluoride, and metals, such as arsenic, chromium, lead, and selenium. The contamination is especially concerning because of its proximity to the Flathead River, a fishery that includes the federally designated threatened bull trout and the federally sensitive westslope cutthroat trout.
Although the EPA has proposed including the site on its National Priorities List, it is still possible that the site will not be formally designated a Superfund. The EPA’s Mike Cirian said the earliest the site could be listed as a Superfund is late 2016.
The site operated as a primary aluminum reduction facility between 1955 and 2009.
EPA representatives will attend a community meeting in Columbia Falls on Jan. 21, 2016, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Columbia Falls High School cafeteria to discuss the agreement, address questions, and outline next steps, including opportunities for public involvement.
Shortly after the agreement between the EPA and CFAC, Gov. Steve Bullock and Sen. Jon Tester issued statements praising the deal.
“I welcome the news that Glencore has recognized its obligations to clean the site and make it ready to once again become a driver of the Flathead economy,” Bullock said. “The plant was a critical part of the economy of Columbia Falls and the site has been idle for too long. It has tremendous potential for redevelopment and will be an important anchor in the future of the region.”