In early June of 1953, a large crowd gathered at an empty section of land below Teakettle Mountain north of Columbia Falls near the Flathead River. The Anaconda Aluminum Company, the global mining and metals giant, was breaking ground on its new hallmark facility, an aluminum smelter that would one day employ 1,500 people and produce 175,000 tons of metal annually.
The construction of the 960-acre facility cost $65 million — equivalent to $580 million today after adjusting for inflation. To build the massive facility, contractors used a material that was widely relied upon in the post-World War II development era and was even called “the miracle mineral” for its durability and resistance to heat and many chemicals. Asbestos was used to construct nearly every aspect of the aluminum reduction facility that is now known as the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company site, which was completed after two years and 11 months and produced its first aluminum on Aug. 12, 1955.
Sixty years later, operations have ceased and many former workers are now taking part in the demolition of the former aluminum plant.
Calbag Resources, a Portland, Oregon-based firm that specializes in decommissioning industrial sites, is in the early stages of tearing down and salvaging all of the above-ground materials at the CFAC property, including more than 50 structures. Crews began dismantling work on Oct. 1 and the entire process is expected to last two and a half years. The workforce on site is nearly 80, including 36 local workers. An estimated 70 percent of the local workforce is former CFAC employees, according to Cliff Boyd, Calbag’s project leader.
“This has been the best labor pool I’ve ever drawn from in my 25 years,” Boyd said. “These crews are the most knowledgeable, hard working and responsible crews I’ve ever had.”
Boyd said the knowledge of crewmembers who formerly worked at CFAC is proving beneficial in the complicated process of decommissioning the site.
“These are very technical projects,” Boyd said.
The massive undertaking is providing a noticeable boost to the local economy. Boyd said crews are buying 4,000 gallons of fuel per week from local distributors. Fifteen hotel rooms a night are being rented, along with five houses for crews.
“I think we’re good for the community,” Boyd said.
As the process moves forward, one complicating factor is the massive amount of asbestos throughout the property. The former “miracle mineral” can cause mesothelioma, a fatal cancer that affects the lining of the lungs, as well as other cancers and lung-related illnesses.
Calbag’s crews have discovered 45 weeks of asbestos-removal work that was unknown at the time when the firm began the project, Boyd said.
Boyd said crews found the material after testing 1,400 samples throughout the CFAC site so far.
“You don’t know where anything is until you tear it down and before you tear it down you test it,” he said.
Boyd said asbestos is being properly removed on a daily basis and sent to the Flathead County landfill, where it can be properly disposed.
He said 70 percent of the asbestos has been removed at this point.
The CFAC project is similar to others that Calbag has tackled over its lengthy history dating back to its inception in 1907.
CFAC is the fifth aluminum smelter that Calbag has decommissioned. The local facility is a clone to a site in The Dalles, Oregon where Calbag worked from 2007-09. The Dalles facility was built from the same blueprint as CFAC, Boyd said, which is helping guide this latest removal and salvage work.
“That actually gives us a bunch of institutional knowledge. We’ve done these exact structures,” Boyd said.
The Dalles site was completed in 2009 and given full approval by the Department of Environmental Quality in Oregon, and has now been redeveloped into professional offices and retail sites.
A big part of the future work at CFAC will involve removing the 451 aluminum reduction cells that each weighs roughly 60 tons. These contain chemicals derived from spent pot liners and are listed as a hazardous waste.
Alongside Calbag’s work, CFAC will lead a comprehensive investigation into potential environmental contamination in and around the site. Work is expected to begin this spring with the installation of wells 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 investigation is expected to lay the groundwork for an eventual cleanup of the 960-acre industrial site northeast of Columbia Falls.
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