Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. permanently closed

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Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. is pictured from the air. Teakettle Mountain is to the left  and the Flathead River flowing through Bad Rock Canyon is to the right. The plant is being considered for Superfund cleanup listing. (Photo courtesy of Hungry Horse News)

Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. is closing permanently and will demolish some plant facilities, company spokesman Haley Beaudry said Tuesday.

The aluminum plant, a major economic driver and part of the Columbia Falls landscape for 60 years, has been mothballed since 2009.

“For me it’s kind of a sad day,” Beaudry said in a phone interview. “A lot of people have put a lot of time into that plant. It’s been a major part of the valley for a long, long time.”

Beaudry, a former external affairs manager for CFAC, is no longer on the plant’s payroll but serves as a consultant.

Market forces, including the cost of raw materials, global competition from more modern facilities and depressed aluminum prices, prompted plant owner Glencore to make the decision to permanently shutter the operation, he said. Prior to the shutdown in 2009, the plant had operated nearly continuously since 1955.

Columbia Falls Chamber of Commerce Director Carol Pike echoed Beaudry’s sentiment about the loss to the community.

“It’s a very sad day,” Pike said. “They were such a good employer and partner in the community.”

A press release issued Tuesday stated the decision to permanently close the plant “was a difficult one, but after deep consideration, management is confident it is in the best interests of the community. This is the next step in making the property productive once again.”

Redevelopment of the property is the next step, Beaudry said. Equipment that still has value will be sold, and the structures specific to the making of aluminum will be razed.

“If anyone else looks at the plant, the absence of those function-specific facilities is a positive,” he said, adding that the plant is for sale. “We’re trying to find someone who might want it.”

Beaudry said building removal will be done within the company’s permit restrictions and Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements. It’s not known yet who will do the demolition.

“CFAC has people talking to the union guys [former employees] but I don’t know what the actual plan is,” Beaudry said.

State Sen. Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse, said the permanent closure is the first step toward making the site ready for redevelopment.

“I’ve always wanted them to do something,” she said. “I’m glad they’re being honest. I’ve been very frustrated by the process throughout; Glencore has danced around the issue.”

Brown has taken a pragmatic approach in looking to the future for the plant site. 

Three years ago she asked the Flathead County commissioners to take the lead in getting CFAC declared a Superfund site. She told county officials Glencore had been stringing the community along since 2009, “pretending it intends to one day reopen the plant.”

State Rep. Zac Perry, D-Columbia Falls, said the permanent closure now allows the community to look to the future.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Perry said about the closure. “I’m excited about the possibility of finding alternative uses for that property and getting some industry back for Columbia Falls.”

U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus tried unsuccessfully for years to broker a power deal with Bonneville Power Administration that could have made it feasible to restart the plant.

“Glencore spent years stringing the community of Columbia Falls along about the future of CFAC, and today it finally cut the strings,” Tester said Tuesday in a prepared statement. “Now it’s time to clean up the site, ensure CFAC workers are treated fairly and use the area to invest in the future of Columbia Falls.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Montana Department of Environmental Quality are studying cleanup options for the aluminum plant site.

A cleanup plan has not materialized yet.

CFAC had been talking with the Department of Environmental Quality over the state’s pursuit of an environmental assessment of the plant site, but late last year CFAC ended those negotiations, saying the company is committed to assessing soil and groundwater impacts at the site but opposes a Superfund designation for the property.

CFAC hired environmental consulting firm Roux Associates to develop a remedial investigation work plan.

Gov. Steve Bullock recently wrote to the EPA asking that the site be placed on the federal Superfund’s National Priority List for cleanup.

Beaudry said the company maintains such a listing “will unnecessarily slow the cleanup process and any future redevelopment” of the plant site.

The plant, initially was owned by Anaconda Copper Mining Co., opened in 1955 northeast of Columbia Falls at the base of Teakettle Mountain along the Flathead River. 

During the first year, 67,500 tons of aluminum were produced from the plant’s two potlines using a reduction process to convert alumina into molten aluminum. The plant later added three more potlines.

At the height of its success, the Columbia Falls plant was producing 180,000 tons of aluminum annually and employed more than 1,200 people.

The facility changed hands several times through the years. Atlantic Richfield Co. purchased Anaconda in 1977, becoming CFAC’s second owner. When ARCO, now owned by BP, began divesting itself of its metals interests, Montana Aluminum Investors Corp. bought CFAC in 1985.

 During 1999, the plant was acquired by Glencore International AG, a Swiss-based metals-trading firm and the current owner.

Through the years the aluminum plant was an industrial hub and a source of community pride in Columbia Falls.

There’s always been more to Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. jobs than just a healthy paycheck, longtime employees point out more often than not.

Through the decades, plant workers were a loyal bunch, bound by a camaraderie that was driven by teamwork, not a sense of eliteness, Lyle Phillips, a former CFAC manager of human resources, said in an earlier interview.

“A good barometer was, we’d bring temps [temporary workers] in and they didn’t want to leave,” Phillips said. “I always give credit to the work force. The only thing that’s been consistent there is the work force.”

On Tuesday, Phillips said he was sad to hear about the permanent closure, “but I understand it,” he added.

“I think it was very good for the valley. A lot of families really benefited from it,” Phillips said. “It’s unfortunate the markets changed. I could see the handwriting on the wall. When Bonneville couldn’t provide the power, when we were shut down,” the Chinese were able to quickly build aluminum production plants and overtook the market.

Community support has been a force that has buoyed the plant through good and bad times.

Conversations with longtime employees always include a reference to the community meetings in the mid-1980s when ARCO threatened to close the plant because of high power and materials costs. Many remember how the community supported the aluminum plant, packing the Columbia Falls High School gymnasium. The end result was a power deal with Bonneville Power Administration that allowed Brack Duker to buy the plant under the name of Montana Aluminum Investors Corp.

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

A worker watches as molten aluminum is transferred at Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. in January 2001. The plant, shuttered since 2009, now has been permanently closed. (Daily Inter lake file photo)

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