EPA Approves Final Cleanup Study at CFAC Superfund Site as Trial Over Legal Responsibility Begins

Years-long environmental mitigation study at former home of Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. approaches final stages

By Tristan Scott
Columbia Falls Aluminum Company. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

As a trial gets underway in Missoula to determine who should bear responsibility for future cleanup costs associated with decades of contamination at the former home of the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company (CFAC), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved the company’s sprawling feasibility study, which helps define the scope of remediation at the Superfund site along the Flathead River.

CFAC Project Manager John Stroiazzo said he received word that EPA had approved the 538-page feasibility study on June 25, laying the groundwork for the federal regulatory agency’s record of decision, which it anticipates finalizing in June 2022. In the coming months, EPA officials will hire its own consultants to review CFAC’s feasibility study before selecting a preferred alternative for the environmental cleanup and soliciting public comment for the preliminary plan.

In the feasibility study, CFAC identified a preferred option, which is projected to cost $50 million and involves building a slurry wall in order to contain the release of environmental hazards such as cyanide and fluoride from buried waste at the shuttered aluminum plant’s former landfill, as well as address groundwater issues. Stroiazzo said construction of the slurry wall is responsible for most of the costs, or about $45 million, while the groundwater remediation costs considerably less.

The division of corporate accountability for those costs remain at the center of a legal dispute between CFAC and the former aluminum plant owner Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO), with CFAC arguing that ARCO bears responsibility for contributing to the costs of cleaning up the decades of contamination that occurred at the site.

The lawsuit went to trial on Monday, June 28 in U.S. District Court in Missoula, with Judge Don Molloy presiding, and will play out over the coming weeks. Stroiazzo said parent company Glencore, which purchased CFAC in 1999 and shuttered the plant in 2009, has solely funded remediation costs to date, including funding the remedial investigation and feasibility work, as well as financial assurance to guarantee the work to the EPA.

“Everything CFAC said it would do, it has done, and it has completed its work on time and under the supervision of the EPA,” Stroiazzo said. “We have done our job, we are proud of that and we have tried top keep the public up to speed as we have gone along. We are thankful to a lot of people and members of the community who have participated.”

He continued: “But at this point ARCO has thus far refused to come to the table, and we said we would pay the bills, but we felt we needed to file an action against ARCO to be a potentially responsible party. And we are in the courts right now asking the judge to define the division of corporate responsibility.”

The central points of contention are who polluted what when, and at what point, if ever, does a new owner assume responsibility for an historic contamination, even if the release is ongoing.

Regardless of the outcome at trial, Stroiazzo said the former CFAC site remains on track for remediation and, eventually, deletion from the National Priorities List, better known as Superfund.

The draft feasibility study approved last week was submitted to the EPA in October 2020 and identified five so-called decision units where work was needed — at two landfill sites, on a soil project and at the north and south percolation ponds — along with a ranking of proposed remediation tactics. Those recommendations will be discussed with the EPA and its environmental consultants over the next several months, with the EPA then expected to issue a record of decision sometime in early to mid 2022. It is at that point that remediation work is anticipated to begin in full.

But CFAC was given permission to begin one project early after its environmental remediation team identified a more pressing need to clean up the south percolation pond near the Flathead River. Stroiazzo said natural river migration and sediment from the nearby Bad Rock Canyon had begun to put pressure on a set of barriers separating the river from the contaminated pond that was built by the site’s previous owners in the 1960s.

The EPA approved the early remediation in July 2020 and work began late last year when Sandry Construction removed the contaminated sediment from the bottom of the pond. Phase two of the project was completed in April, at which time Sandry removed a sheet pile wall and riprap, allowing the river return to its natural channel for the first time in decades.

CFAC also said that all scheduled demolition work at the site has been completed. An administrative building, three warehouses and a fabrication shop still remain at the site, along with a parking lot and fencing, all infrastructure intended to make the site attractive to a future tenant once cleanup is complete. “We are pleased to have completed this important step in the Superfund process, and we look forward to continuing to work cooperatively with EPA, [Montana Department of Environmental Quality] and all other stakeholders as this process moves forward,” Stroiazzo said.