Superfund listing proposed for aluminum plant

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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)

The Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. has officially begun its journey toward possible designation as a Superfund cleanup site.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday formally proposed adding the property to the National Priorities List, which would initiate the process of decontaminating the site and try to compel CFAC’s parent company, Glencore, to pay the costs.

The agency is taking comments for 60 days on the listing recommendation.

The sprawling plant northeast of Columbia Falls has been closed since October 2009. On March 3, the company announced that the plant would not reopen. The plant first began producing aluminum in 1955.

The federal environmental agency based its Superfund recommendation on soil, surface water and groundwater in which cyanide, fluoride, arsenic, chromium, lead and selenium were detected, posing a potential risk to adjacent wells and the Flathead River.

Glencore has opposed the designation, asking the EPA to instead allow it to proceed with its own site assessment and remediation plans and saying the plant’s addition to the National Priorities List will only slow down the process.

“We know that in the 31-year life of Superfund, the 18 sites in Montana that are listed have never come off the list, and some have been on that list for the entire 31 years,” said Haley Beaudry, a company spokesman. 

“So we don’t hold too much credence in the position that it will lead to economic development because we don’t think there will be much done on the Superfund site, if it makes it to the Superfund designation.”

Rob Parker, a site assessment manager with EPA regional headquarters in Denver, said Montana contains 16 Superfund sites, with another three proposed for listing. But he said whether they have been delisted isn’t the whole story.

“It depends on the terminology. It’s accurate that none of the sites that have been listed on the Superfund list for Montana have been delisted,” Parker said. “But the key message is that although the sites are still on the list, that certainly doesn’t mean cleanup is still waiting to happen. Cleanup is happening as the site is listed and there are lots of opportunities for redevelopment and cleanup while the site is still listed.” 

The listing has the support of Columbia Falls government and many local business leaders.

At a meeting last week, they shared their skepticism about the company’s commitment to cleaning up the site with U.S. Sen. John Tester, D-Mont., who has supported the listing along with Gov. Steve Bullock.

“You can either sit back and wait for Glencore to do it, or you can move forward and get it done yourself, and we’re not going to wait,” Columbia Falls Mayor Don Barnhart said in an interview Tuesday. “We’ve really got to get this stuff out of the river. Drinking water and all that is really important, but the long term of this is we’ve got to keep it out of the river. You look at all the work people do to keep the Flathead River and the lake pristine.”

Parker confirmed that while the extent of the contamination is a long way from being determined, pollutants have been detected leaching into the river.

U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., has been vocal in his opposition to the Superfund listing, sending letters earlier this month to the governor and the EPA that supported the company’s plans.

“Given EPA’s track record of not being timely and efficient, I would prefer that we agree upon a plan founded on private enterprise to get it done quicker,” said Zinke, who is from Whitefish. “I think they need to sign a contract, that this is the process, and that contract should be between Glencore and the state of Montana or another public entity.”

However, the company broke off cleanup talks with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality in December. 

Kristi Ponozzo, a spokeswoman with the state agency, said the company refused to allow the agency to retain certain authorities in the cleanup process after Glencore said it wanted to expedite the cleanup process. She added the company has not reached out to the agency since then.

Zinke and others have also raised concerns that the listing will create a stigma for Columbia Falls by drawing attention to the contaminated site, a contention to which Barnhart objected.

“It would attach a stigma to us if we just let it go on. That would say that we’re not concerned,” he said. “Waiting on Glencore so far has just not been a good deal.”

Glencore has been working with the environmental cleanup firm Roux Associates to create a cleanup plan.

“We’ve been working on that for a while. We’ve done ongoing testing and environmental reporting, because the site is still under permit,” Beaudry said, adding that the company has stayed in compliance with all of its permits with the state.

Both he and Parker noted that a full investigation is needed before any realistic timeline can be established for cleanup.

“No one knows the extent of any cleanup that might be necessary. That’s what the site investigation will tell you,” Beaudry said.

After the comment period, the agency will read and respond to comments from the public, then determine whether to add the plant to the National Priorities List. If added, the next step is to determine the responsible parties, which will be compelled to pay the costs of testing and cleanup. The site will then undergo a remedial investigation to determine the extent of the contamination and inform a cleanup plan. Parker said the investigation alone will take at least a year.

A 60-day public review and comment period will begin Thursday.

Parker said the data and information used by the agency in its decision will be available at the Columbia Falls ImagineIF Library by the end of the week. 

The information is also available online at:

www2.epa.gov/region8/columbia-falls-aluminum-reduction-plant.

Reporter Samuel Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at swilson@dailyinterlake.com

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