Guest Column

The Devil Is Always in the Details

Wouldn’t the community of Columbia Falls and Flathead County want the highest standard of site remediation on CFAC land regardless of the future use?

By Coalition for a Clean CFAC

News that Columbia Falls Aluminum Company/Glencore and Columbia Falls based developer Mick Ruis have agreed to enter into a buy/sell for some 2,400 acres of CFAC land was big and important news this week. 

Since the closing of the CFAC plant over a decade ago and its designation as a Superfund site, future economic development as well as conservation of environmentally sensitive site features has been a priority for the community. The preservation of some 772 acres that is now the Bad Rock Wildlife Management Area was made possible by generous community fundraising totaling $7.26 million, and CFAC/Glencore’s willingness to sell this conservation easement at a price that made this exchange possible and a win-win for the community and the company. Other portions of environmentally sensitive property within the 2,400 acres proposed for sale should be considered for long-term conservation and protection as well. It is our hope that Ruis and Glencore will reach out to the Flathead Land Trust, Fish Wildlife and Parks and the State of Montana Natural Resource Damage Program to evaluate this potential.

The announcement stressed that Mr. Ruis is not only interested in finalizing a buy-sell agreement with CFAC/Glencore, but that he wants to build primarily “affordable” single family homes on the property. This proposed new housing, in addition to future commercial and industrial development, was a new twist and perhaps a good one, but as is often the case, the devil is in the details. The press release that was the basis of this announcement was very sparse on any detail.

While the press release stated that the proposed sale would only move forward if the existing proposed cleanup plan was adopted, this position seems counter to the best interests of Mr. Ruis or the community. A key question for us and many community members is why would anyone want to buy a house next to an unlined toxic waste dump or invest in a commercial enterprise in this new neighborhood without greater assurances that the proposed cleanup plan had considered residential uses and provided the extra safeguards and cleanup considerations to address this added use?

It is important to understand that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decides how cleaned up a site gets, based on what the community and landowners want the site to be used for in the future. When contacted by the Coalition in December, the EPA wrote in an e-mail, “the feasibility study for CFAC only identified potential future use as commercial, industrial, and recreational.” The cleanup proposal, leaving the waste in place, is based on that feasibility study and future use. While we agree that residential uses should be considered as a future use, we think the fact that the feasibility study and the cleanup plan failed to consider residential land uses, means that this is yet another reason to pause the record of decision process and evaluate the potential cleanup needed to include much needed housing. There is a sliding scale for cleanup requirements and Glencore is currently seeking the least rigorous approach by only seeking industrial and commercial uses of the site, while Ruis is now introducing the potential for residential housing, which requires the highest level of clean up. 

Wouldn’t the community of Columbia Falls and Flathead County want the highest standard of site remediation regardless of the future use? The community has already stepped up to demand the most rigorous option – waste-removal, regardless of the future use of the site. Collectively, we are all going to own the liability for a less clean site, for decades to come. Let’s take time to get this cleanup process done right.

According to the Flathead Beacon “Contained within the 2,400-acre property that is part of the sale is a 1,340-acre area the EPA identified as the Superfund study area, as well as about 507 acres on which industrial activities occurred, including the aluminum plant site and warehouses, as well as attendant infrastructure.” According to EPA web sites, understanding and supporting the current and future use of Superfund sites is supposed to inform all phases of the cleanup process, from risk assessment and remedy selection through long-term stewardship and protectiveness.

Now is the time for both Ruis and CFAC/Glencore to share with the EPA and the community more concrete details of future development they envision at this site, including maps, potential development patterns, and conditions within the sale agreement, so that the scale and economic viability of future development of the site can be well planned and successful. Significant additional tax dollars are available for redevelopment of Superfund sites like this, but the public deserves to know that investing more tax dollars in this site will be coupled with a cleanup plan that is strongly tailored for the long-term safety of future residents and businesses who invest in the redevelopment of this property.