EPA Officials Address Initial Outlook of CFAC Study

Community meeting focused on remedial investigation status, health concerns, asbestos removal

By Clare Menzel
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, right, speaks with Mike Cirian, EPA Remedial Project Manager, as they tour the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company site. Beacon File Photo

COLUMBIA FALLS — Project managers with the Environmental Protection Agency met with community members last week to offer insight into the years-long process ahead involving the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company property that was recently designated a Superfund site.

The group brainstormed strategies to better communicate with residents and EPA officials tried to quell initial health concerns. It was the first community meeting held since CFAC was designated a Superfund site on the EPA’s National Priority List on Sept. 9 due to concerns about contaminants that pose a risk to human health and the environment.

“We’re scared, we’re frustrated, and we’re scared,” one attendee, who did not wish to share her name, said at the Sept. 29 community meeting at Columbia Falls Junior High School. “We don’t know where we are right now. You have to gain trust. We have to see something actually happening. Right now, it’s all words.”

As of yet, the samples do not indicate that residents have anything to be afraid of, Mike Cirian, EPA’s remedial project manager, reported.

He said that should any findings appear “scary, we will sit down and see if there’s some action we need to take. We don’t have any numbers right now that are scary like that … We’re not seeing any contamination that’s showing up in the wells that’s an alarm.”

This summer, contractors dug 44 wells, redeveloped 20 wells, and took the first of four seasonal rounds of water samples at the 960-acre industrial property, according to Cirian. Of the 64 wells, four were dry and workers were unable to collect samples. Workers also sampled surface water and soil. Cirian expects to release numbers from those samples in October.

The remedial investigation is an ongoing study that will determine the nature and extent of the contamination, and the next step will involve continuing to gather and analyze samples. Its results will inform the feasibility study, which will evaluate cleanup strategies and is expected to be completed by February 2020.

The work this summer was completed at a cost of over $2 million, which is “right at where we anticipated it would be,” Cirian said. The property’s owner, Glencore, agreed in 2015 to fund work on the site up through the feasibility study phase.

Colleen Owen, a Montana Department of Environmental Quality environmental science specialist, also shared recent totals of asbestos removal from the site. Since demolition of the CFAC facilities began in May 2015, Calbag Resources, a Portland, Oregon-based demolition contractor, has removed more than 950,490 pounds of asbestos-containing materials from the site.

Throughout the meeting, community members expressed concern about a lack of urgency and clear communication from the agencies involved.

“There is a sense of urgency,” Robert Moler, EPA’s community involvement coordinator for the CFAC site, said. “Fear, at times, is fueled by uncertainty, unawareness, and we want to reduce fear through delivery of information and engagement through the process.”

Moler urged the community to call or email him with any questions at 406-457-5032 and moler.robert@epa.gov, or Cirian at 406-293-6194 and cirian.mike@epa.gov, with any questions. Moler is currently working on a community involvement plan, which will identify what information matters most to Columbia Falls residents and help make fact sheets or education programs more relevant. In early November, he hopes to share the results from a round of interviews with community members.

Attendees discussed additional ways to spread information in addition to Moler’s emails, including a regular bulletin or postings around town in public places or private businesses. Still, Cirian said, during the remedial investigation, much of the work is the kind that doesn’t render direct results, or at least won’t be useful until it can be analyzed in greater depth and within the context of data that has yet to be collected.

Residents also repeatedly expressed concerns about the safety of drinking and bathing water. With the stakes potentially so high, they hoped it would not take years to see results from data that could have direct bearing on their health and lifespan.

“My formal role is to write the (health assessment) document, but what I like best is if people think of me as a resource,” David Dorian, an environmental engineer/health specialist with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a health agency appointed by Congress, said. “If questions come up during the cleanup — ‘How will this part impact my health? Is this part adequate to protect my health?’ — call.”

Dorian can be reached at (303) 312-7011, or by email at ddorian@cdc.gov.

“The hard part is, until we have the data, we can’t do the evaluation,” he continued. “And it’s a long, challenging process to go through that. We will endeavor to make that information as timely as possible.”

“Ask me whatever you want, and I’ll be as honest as I can,” Cirian added. “Sometimes I can’t tell you because I just don’t know the answer yet.”

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