Baucus, Tester ask EPA to evaluate contamination at Columbia Falls aluminum plant


by Tristan Scott

COLUMBIA FALLS – Montana Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus have asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to evaluate contamination levels at the shuttered Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. plant.

The Democratic senators said they hope to determine whether the 120-acre industrial area could pose a risk to the community and jeopardize future economic development, and that a federal cleanup of the defunct plant could create new jobs.

Glencore, which owns CFAC, closed the plant outside Columbia Falls in October 2009.

Both senators have since worked with Glencore and the Bonneville Power Administration to negotiate a long-term power contract to restart the facility, but bleak market conditions and volatile metal and power prices have kept it from reopening.

Tester and Baucus are now urging the EPA to study contamination levels at the site to determine whether it should be declared a Superfund site – a designation that could create new jobs cleaning up hazardous materials and support new business opportunities for the region’s economy, the senators said in a news release.

“We are concerned about an indefinite delay in economic opportunities at the site and support the community’s efforts to explore all options for remediation,” Tester and Baucus wrote in a letter to Howard Cantor, the EPA’s acting administrator for Region 8 in Denver. “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.”

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.

“The community of Columbia Falls, through its local representatives, is now exploring other options for this 120-acre industrial area, including cleanup,” the letter continues. “We applaud the community’s proactive approach to consider all options in the face of this economic tragedy.”

The CFAC plant began producing aluminum in 1955, with production reaching 180,000 tons of aluminum by 1968. At its height, the plant employed 1,500 people and was central to the area’s economy. When it shut down at the end of October 2009, the closure forced the layoff of nearly 90 workers as high energy prices and poor market conditions made operations unprofitable.

Negotiations to secure a reasonable power contract between BPA and Glencore have plodded along for years as the market conditions persist.

Baucus and Tester asked the EPA administrator to coordinate with the state Department of Environmental Quality to begin a site assessment of the CFAC production facilities and the adjoining areas – including the Cedar Creek drainage – for a listing on the National Priorities List under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, commonly known as Superfund.

“Due to the economic and environmental impact of this plant to the local community, we urge you to provide us with a timeline of action for analysis,” the letter states.