EQC to Send Letters Urging Pause in Columbia Falls Superfund Site Cleanup Decision

Council also votes to urge Congress to fund rare earth element reclamation at Berkeley Pit

By Blair Miller, Daily Montanan
Columbia Falls Aluminum Company as seen on July 30, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Montana’s Environmental Quality Council voted unanimously Wednesday to send letters to Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency recommending support for rare-earth mining in the Berkeley Pit and for a pause in a final decision on the proposed cleanup plan for the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company Superfund site.

The letters come at a key time for both Superfund sites, lawmakers on the council said, as a Record of Decision is expected to be finalized this spring by the EPA for the $57 million aluminum plant site cleanup plan and as Montana organizations apply for federal funding to study whether the technology exists to recover rare-earth minerals from the Pit in Butte.

The Environmental Quality Council, composed of lawmakers and members of the public, agreed to send two letters to EPA Region 8 administrators regarding the Columbia Falls site.

One will be sent to Region 8 Administrator KC Becker that says the council thinks the proposed plan for the Columbia Falls site cleanup falls short of the community’s requests, including that it consider removing toxic waste — including cyanide, fluoride and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — rather than leaving it there and walling it off. The letter also asks the EPA to pause the final decision to consider more local input.

“We believe that additional time is needed to thoroughly assess the potential risks associated with the EPA’s preferred clean-up alternative on this complex site and to explore an alternative (that) prioritizes off-site removal of contaminants,” the letter says. “The council believes that a made-in-Montana (or made-in-Columbia Falls) solution would foster a local sense of ownership and commitment, while adding flexibility and adaptability in case of changing circumstances.”

The second letter is to the Region 8 Technical Assistance Grant program coordinator and voices support for the Coalition for a Clean’s application for a technical assistant grant they would like in order to further study cleanup options with the community.

“The council urges the EPA to approve the Coalition for a Clean Columbia Falls Aluminum Company’s grant application and provide the necessary funding to support their important work,” the letter says. “Investing in this study will enable their community to better understand and address the environmental challenges associated with cleanup of the CFAC plant and move towards a more sustainable and healthy future.”

The Coalition for a Clean CFAC formed in January as a coalition of Citizens for a Better Flathead and Upper Flathead Neighborhood Association in order to ask the EPA and Montana Department of Environmental Quality to put a pause on a final record of decision, and it has grown in the months since. The Flathead County Commission also urged a pause on the final determination in a letter to the EPA in February.

Carolina Balliew, the supervisor of the Section C Superfund Remedial Branch, responded to the coalition and commissioners in letters on March 7. Balliew said the EPA appreciated the coalition’s concerns and encouraged and supported the TAG application, but outlined the community process the proposal has already gone through and said all of that would be captured in a summary along with the final Record of Decision.

Coalition members spoke with representatives for both agencies as well as legislators at a committee meeting a week later, urging them to support a pause, which led to Wednesday’s council vote to send the letters to the EPA. Under the EPA’s proposed plan, the analysis said removing and shipping the waste to the closest available city in Oregon would be too costly and potentially dangerous for the environment, but the coalition contends that the cost should not be a factor because the company that owns the site will have to pay.

“Off‐site disposal was screened out as a remedial or cleanup alternative in the feasibility study because on‐site disposal options can achieve similar effectiveness with lower levels of risk, disruption, and cost,” the proposed plan said.

The letter requests a pause of the Record of Decision for at least a year, which Phil Matson, one of the coalition members who is a Columbia Falls resident and researcher at the Flathead Lake Biological Station, said would allow the coalition to finalize applications, hire a contractor to review the remedial investigation and proposed cleanup plans, then get out into the community to develop more ideas and strategies while navigating the process with the EPA and DEQ.

“We feel this Technical Assistance Grant will accomplish the goal of independent review and community engagement while keeping the timeline of the actual cleanup reasonable,” Matson said. “We all want to see the cleanup to take place sooner than later, but like I said, we only have one chance, and we need to do this right.”

Matson said last week’s announcement, reported by the Flathead Beacon, that Ruis Construction planned to buy 2,400 acres of land from the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company, owned by Glencore, Ltd., to build affordable housing once the Record of Decision is finalized made the pause “more crucial.”

The land purchase would not include the land that is the source of the toxic contamination but would include part of the Superfund study area and land where the aluminum plant sat, the Beacon reported.

Matson said the proposal to build affordable housing was possibly a good twist in the saga, but the companies saying the sale would be finalized upon the release of the Record of Decision worries the coalition that it might only lead to what the group believes is an underwhelming cleanup plan.

“As we’ve argued before, this position seems counter to the best interests of both the buyer and the community,” Matson told the council. “Why would anyone want to buy a home next to a toxic waste dump or invest in the commercial enterprise without greater assurances? The cleanup will provide safeguards to address the residential use.”

He also said the CFAC had scheduled community meetings in Columbia Falls on April 24 and 25, which he said could be valuable but which he also sees as a “rush to placate the community.”

“This two-day whirlwind tour is not in keeping with the community requests for open and independent analysis, and is not in line with the EPA’s own 2022 assessment, advising that the community would value having a neutral adviser who would tell them if the information the EPA shared is incomplete or not – especially entering into a proposed planned stage of long-term cleanup,” Matson said.

Letter urges Congress to fund recovery of rare earth elements from Berkeley Pit

The third letter the council agreed to send is one to members of Congress urging them to fund efforts to reclaim rare earth elements and other minerals used in technology and defense from the Berkeley Pit and evaluate other abandoned or permitted mines in Montana to potentially do the same.

The Montana Standard reported last week that the Montana Mining Association had submitted a funding proposal to the Department of Defense for the next fiscal year to try and find ways to recover the materials, and that the department had also encouraged West Virginia University, which has been helping study the presence of rare-earth elements in the Berkeley Pit for years and has been developing new technology to recover the materials, to submit a proposal for more funding as well.

The letter highlights concerns voiced during the past few years about China’s stranglehold on the rare-earth elements global market and says that being able to mine tons of them domestically would ease economic and national security risks for the U.S.

The council said in the letter that the water treatment plant stream contains high concentrations of cerium, gallium, neodymium, yttrium, zinc, and other valuable minerals. Teams from Montana and West Virginia University ran a demonstration of the recovery process university researchers have developed last fall.

“By investing in this proposal, Congress can stimulate economic growth, create new jobs, and enhance our national security,” the letter says. “It aligns with broader efforts to promote domestic resource development and strengthen America’s position in the global marketplace.”

This story originally appeared in the Daily Montanan, which can be found online at dailymontanan.com.