Senators want pollution study of CFAC site

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With the prospect of Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. reopening still a long shot, Montana Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus are now pushing the federal government to see if the plant property should be declared a Superfund site.

The senators last week sent a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, asking for a study of contamination levels that could pose a risk not only for the community but also for any future business to use the site.

Glencore, the Swiss-based parent company of the mothballed aluminum plant, closed CFAC in 2009. Since then Tester and Baucus have worked with both Glencore and the Bonneville Power Administration to reopen the plant, but volatile metal prices have been a stumbling block.

State Sen. Dee Brown, R-Columbia Falls, first pitched the idea of declaring the property a Superfund site to the Flathead County commissioners last December, saying she believed Glencore has been stringing the community along with no intention of restarting the aluminum plant.

Brown said no one knows the extent of any contamination at the aluminum company site, but through the years she has heard anecdotal accounts from plant workers about potential pollution. 

The 125-acre property lies at the base of Teakettle Mountain near the Flathead River.

Dale Lauman, who retired from his commissioner seat at the end of 2012, agreed with Brown, noting then that the future cleanup of the property needs to be pursued.

Commissioner Pam Holmquist said Monday the commission hasn’t yet addressed the issue. She said she’s glad Tester and Baucus are taking the lead.

“It will come down to the federal government funding it, whatever happens,” Holmquist said.

Tester and Baucus said cleaning up any hazardous materials would create jobs, but more importantly would set the stage for new business opportunities at the site.

“We applaud the community’s proactive approach to consider all options in the face of this economic tragedy,” the senators wrote in their letter to the EPA.

Tester and Baucus want the EPA to assess the risks posed by the plant’s decades-long handling of hazardous materials, including cyanide and zinc. They specifically call on the agency to study the plant’s solvent landfills and wastewater ponds that handled plant discharge until the 1980s.

“Due to the complexity of the site we urge the EPA to swiftly commence a site assessment of the CFAC production facilities for a listing of Superfund,” they wrote.

The Superfund program was established in 1980 through federal legislation that authorized the EPA to identify parties responsible for contamination and compel them to clean it up.

There are several steps involved in cleaning up a polluted site. Once a potentially polluted site has been reported to the EPA by individual citizens, state agencies or local government entities, the federal agency follows a step-by-step process to determine the best way to clean up the site and protect human health and the environment. Opportunities for community involvement occur throughout the process.

By taking action now to clean up the property, it would be ready and waiting for other manufacturing if Glencore sold the property.

The aluminum plant operated in Columbia Falls (with one other closure) from August 1955 to October 2009, when the high cost of power and increased international competition led to the plant’s closure. Eighty-eight people lost their jobs when the plant went dark. At its peak, the facility employed more than 1,200 people and was producing 180,000 tons of aluminum annually.

Over the years, the plant had a succession of owners: Anaconda Copper Mining Co., Atlantic Richfield Co., Montana Aluminum Investors Corp. and Glencore.

 

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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