Tester likes what he sees, but still says Superfund listing best for CFAC plant
COLUMBIA FALLS – As crews continued the start of the demolition of the massive Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. plant – once the driving economic force in this gateway community to Glacier National Park – U.S. Sen. Jon Tester toured the 800-acre industrial site Thursday.
Montana’s senior senator liked what he saw happening, but said it didn’t change his mind about his support for a Superfund listing for the site.
“I applaud everything they’re doing,” the Democrat said of Glencore, the Swiss-based commodity trading and mining giant that bought the property in 1999. “But it’s critically important that we keep holding Glencore responsible, and the only agency that can do that is the EPA.”
Tester predicted a fantastic future for the 3,000-acre property that spans both sides of the Flathead River if it and the industrial site within its borders is cleaned to EPA standards.
“Once it’s cleaned up, people will run over each other to get here,” Tester said, pointing to infrastructure already in place (rail lines, electricity) and what’s here or close by (the Flathead River, Glacier National Park).
“A clean bill of health from the EPA – that’s money in the bank,” Tester said.
Glencore prefers to move ahead without the Superfund listing, under a Superfund Alternative that requires a responsible party willing to pay for a cleanup without federal Superfund money.
“It allows the same type of cleanup,” said Cheryl Driscoll of New York, head of U.S. corporate affairs for Glencore. “It would be more efficient in terms of time and cost.”
At its height in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, the Columbia Falls plant produced a million pounds of aluminum every day and employed up to 1,600 people back when the city’s entire population wasn’t even twice that.
Most of the aluminum made here wound up in people’s homes, lining their baking dishes, covering their leftovers or wadded up on the rabbit ears of their television sets, as tinfoil.
But the process came with environmental costs.
Operating under the regulations of the day, CFAC buried large amounts of hazardous waste in on-site landfills, the earliest ones unlined. They include cyanide, fluoride, arsenic, chromium, lead and selenium.
In 2014, the EPA found the levels of cyanide, arsenic, lead and fluoride in the groundwater in and around the plant at levels so high that it qualified as a federal Superfund site.
With the property situated so close to Glacier Park and on the Flathead River, which feeds into Flathead Lake, Tester said it is vital that the cleanup meets the highest standards.
“We’ve got to keep holding their feet to the fire,” the senator said of Glencore. “If it becomes voluntary, they could walk away at any time.”
Glencore walked away from negotiations with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality over the Columbia Falls site in January 2015, prompting Tester and Gov. Steve Bullock to send letters to the EPA urging the agency to list CFAC as a Superfund site.
The Swiss conglomerate then returned to the negotiating table, and toward the end of the year it reached an agreement with the EPA. It calls for CFAC to conduct a comprehensive investigation of soils, river sediments, and ground and surface water to determine the nature and extent of contamination.
The company also must reimburse the EPA for the agency’s costs in overseeing the investigation. It is expected to take $4 million to determine the full scope of contamination at the site.
CFAC will begin drilling 23 wells on the site in May for groundwater testing, according to Steve Wright, the company’s environmental manager. It’s one of the first steps in the remedial investigation and feasibility study that will take four years to complete.
“I know there’s a feeling out there to ‘Just clean it up and get it done,’ ” said Mike Cirian, EPA remedial project manager, “but you can’t clean up what you don’t know yet.”
Test results will go a long way toward determining the future of the property, Driscoll said.
Opponents of a Superfund listing fear it would attach a stigma to Columbia Falls, and hurt tourism and real estate prices. Opponents include U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., who favors the DEQ overseeing the cleanup, and the Flathead County commissioners, who prefer the Superfund Alternative.
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., has not taken a stand, saying the decision should be made by local residents.
The Columbia Falls City Council has officially backed a Superfund listing, although some city leaders say they did so only in an attempt to get Glencore to do something about the site, where the buildings have been empty and idle since CFAC quit producing aluminum in 2009 amid high electricity costs.
Tester maintains that a Superfund listing and cleanup is the best way to ensure the property once again becomes a major player in the Flathead Valley economy.
“It’s just the right thing to do for the community,” he said.