Environmental Regulators, CFAC to Host Open House Ahead of Cleanup Decision

A pending land sale and development plan on 2,400 acres hinges on the EPA selecting a cleanup plan favored by Glencore, renewing community concerns about the future of the contaminated Superfund site near the Flathead River

By Tristan Scott
Columbia Falls Aluminum Company as seen on July 30, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

State and federal environmental regulators this week will host a pair of open houses and presentations to field questions about the future of the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company (CFAC) Superfund property, where an emerging land sale and related development plans have renewed concerns among community members about the proposed cleanup plan.

In addition to representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), CFAC officials and environmental consultants from Roux Associates will be on hand for the public engagement and information sessions, scheduled for April 24 and 25. Daytime sessions will be held in an open house format at The Hub Downtown in Columbia Falls, allowing attendees to stop in anytime between noon and 5 p.m. A formal presentation will begin at 6:30 p.m., followed by a question-and-answer session.

“The sessions aim to provide valuable information on the remediation process and technical experts will be on hand to answer questions,” according to an announcement from CFAC, whose shuttered aluminum plant property along the Flathead River is undergoing the final phase of environmental assessment under the federal Superfund program.

Dana Barnicoat, community involvement coordinator for the EPA’s Region 8, said the objective of the engagement sessions is to provide information about the development of the remedial investigation, feasibility study and proposed cleanup plan, as well as “to answer any questions … about the site, the assessments, the process that has occurred so far, and the steps going forward.”

CFAC, which is owned by the multinational commodity trading and mining company Glencore, recently announced plans to sell 2,400 acres of its property to local developer Mick Ruis, who has a track record of revitalizing neglected corners of the Flathead Valley and is now laying plans to build single-family homes and bring commercial developments to the Superfund site. Although Ruis said he’s still finalizing a master plan for the property, he intends to build 1,800-square-foot homes on quarter-acre lots and sell them for $550,000, with options for owner financing to minimize down payments and interest rates.

However, the terms of the sale are conditioned on the EPA issuing a record of decision to contain rather than remove the contaminated waste from the property, which has raised concerns from some segments of the community.

“The last thing I would ever do is put someone in danger,” Ruis told the Beacon. “I’ve invested everything I have in this community and I have no intention of letting it down.”

Community members gather around drilling equipment near one of the landfills during a tour of the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company site on May 25, 2016. Beacon file photo

Under the EPA’s proposed action, the environmental remediation would involve constructing a slurry wall to contain chemicals in the groundwater where they’ve been detected in high concentrations around the contaminated landfill and sludge pond.

Barnicoat acknowledged a renewed degree of interest from the public following the announcement by CFAC and Ruis, writing in an email that the agency is aware that “the sale of a portion of the property raises questions and concerns among the community” about the future of the CFAC site; however, Barnicoat said the sale of the property will not affect the ongoing Superfund process or the review of public comments on the proposed plan for site cleanup “as the agency works toward a final Record of Decision.”

Those concerns are underscored by the formation earlier this year of the Coalition for a Clean CFAC, which is urging residents to join a petition requesting the EPA and DEQ “take a timeout to fairly evaluate the cost-benefits of removing (not leaving) the toxic waste at CFAC,” according to the group. Specifically, it asks the regulatory agencies to delay a Record of Decision based on the proposed waste-in-place plan outlined in the 2021 Feasibility Study and the 2023 proposed cleanup plan for the Columbia Falls smelter site, which was developed in cooperation with CFAC. Earlier this year, the Flathead County Commission also urged the EPA “to postpone its final determination on the cleanup” of CFAC “until a comprehensive evaluation is conducted,” according to a Feb. 12 letter that all three commissioners signed and sent to EPA.

“This evaluation must thoroughly assess the potential impacts on the pristine waters of the Flathead River, lakes, and the Columbia River headwaters that could result from the retention of a million cubic yards of hazardous waste on-site,” the commissioners wrote. “Additionally, it should entail a thorough cost analysis comparing the removal of waste versus capping and lining in place, with a focus on the implications for the next century and beyond.”

Street signs indicating the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company plant site. Beacon File Photo

Located near Columbia Falls on the Flathead River, the CFAC site was once home to an aluminum reduction facility. Approximately 40 chemicals have been identified as contaminants of potential concern at the site, including cyanide, fluoride, arsenic and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

CFAC Project Manager John Stroiazzo said the land sale does not include the roughly 200 acres of property the remedial investigation identified as the source of contamination, including the landfills and a buffer zone.

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.

Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, said he’s made the CFAC cleanup as one of his top-five priorities as he seeks election to the Montana Senate, ranking it alongside affordable housing in importance.

“I think the community needs to be assured that it’s interests are being considered not just now but in perpetuity,” Fern said. “What happens in 50 years or 100 years if something gets screwed up and there’s a major threat to the environment or to public health? If they build a slurry wall and it’s not fail-proof and a leakage is detected, then what happens? Those are questions that everyone is going to want answered.”

Event Details

  • Date: April 24 and 25
  • Time: Open house format from noon to 5 p.m., formal presentation at 6:30 p.m.
  • Location: The Hub Downtown, 533 First Ave. E., Columbia Falls

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