Council writes formal letter supporting CFAC Superfund

by Chris Peterson

Columbia Falls has some of the cleanest water in the country. The well water it provides its city residents doesn’t even require chlorination. The city wants to make sure it stays that way.

Earlier this month it wrote a letter to Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester informing him that council intends to “stay the course” in its advocacy for placing the Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. on the National Priorities List for Superfund listing.

“The council came to this decision after much discussion and debate,” the city wrote to Tester. “The decision was not made lightly and was based on a thorough review of the actions and information to date. While the council is appreciative of the progress made to date, obtaining an administrative order (on consent) and bonding for the testing phase, the council would like to ensure there is no delay in getting through the actual clean up phase of the site.”

“The city council, on behalf of the community, continues to express their desire to see the site cleaned up, preventing the spread of groundwater contaminants. Providing clean, safe drinking water is important to the council and to that end, the city has made significant investments in providing safe drinking water to the citizens of Columbia Falls. While testing of the city’s wells have not revealed that the known contaminants from the CFAC site have made their way into the city’s drinking water supply as of now, the city would not like to see cleanup and remedial action delayed until the city is faced with costly emergency measures to protect the city’s water supply.”

The letter ends with the council thanking Tester, a Democrat, for his work in getting the site qualified for Superfund listing.

An actual decision on listing is expected in the fall. The EPA has three options, it can decide to list the site, it can opt for the Superfund Alternative Assessment Approach, which would clean up the site under Superfund standards without actual listing, or it can decide to do nothing, noted EPA project manager Mike Cirian.

Republican Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke last week advocated that the state should oversee the actual cleanup of the site. But there is one problem with that tact – the state initially tried to negotiate a cleanup plan with the company last year, but the company and the state were unable to reach any agreement and the company walked away from negotiations.

The EPA, backed by a $4 million funding guarantee from CFAC, is overseeing groundwater and soil testing of the site. It will also oversee a feasibility study on how best to clean it up. But that decision won’t come for another four to five years.

Cirian told the council last week that if during the testing phase they find an “omigosh” plume of pollution, the EPA can take emergency steps to clean it up.

The main concern is the site may have heavy metals, arsenic and cyanide in groundwater under age-old landfills north of the plant itself.

CFAC environmental engineer Steve Wright told council last week that the company would like to avoid Superfund listing due to the cost and the length of time it takes to get a site off the list.

Mayor Don Barnhart, in the past, has supported the alternative assessment approach, if it would lead to a faster cleanup.