Hungry Horse News: Senator Tester sides with Coalition for a Clean CFAC

by Chris Peterson

Montana Sen. Jon Tester said last week that the “waste in place” cleanup plan for the Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. Superfund site “was not much of a cleanup plan at all.”

His views are in-line with Columbia Falls community leaders and an ongoing petition drive by The Coalition for a Clean CFAC. The Coalition, which is made of of representatives from several community groups including Citizens for a Better Flathead and the Upper Flathead Neighborhood Association, recently garnered 1,000 signatures to a petition requesting that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality take a “timeout” to fairly re-evaluate the cost-benefits of removing, instead of leaving the toxic waste at CFAC.

In a proposed action released by the EPA in June 2023, the agency’s preferred cleanup was to contain cyanide and fluoride leaching into groundwater  from at least two of the plant’s old dumps behind a slurry wall of bentonite. The idea behind the wall is to simply contain the waste and, if need be, treat any groundwater that’s contaminated if it goes beyond the wall’s boundaries.

But the vast majority of the public comments on the plan were opposed to it, with most advocating that Glencore, the company that owns CFAC, be required to remove the waste entirely and haul it to an approved toxic waste landfill in Oregon. The cost of the slurry wall would be roughly $50 million. The Proposed Action never put paper to pencil on the cost of hauling the waste away.

But according to federal court records, CFAC made about $1 billion when the plant was operational.

Tester said the EPA wasn’t “listening to the people of the ground” when it came to cleaning up toxic waste dumps across the state. He recently wrote a letter to EPA brass where he was critical of its “waste in place” strategy for several Superfund sites in Montana, including CFAC.

He said during a conference call with reporters last week that he hoped to get EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan to visit Montana and listen to community concerns, including those in Butte, Missoula and Columbia Falls

All three communities have Superfund sites in them or close to them.

The Flathead County Commissioners in a Feb. 12  also asked the EPA to postpone its final decision on a cleanup plan for the site and to do a “comprehensive evaluation” that “thoroughly assess the potential impacts on the pristine waters of the Flathead River, Lakes, and the Columbia River headwaters that could result from the retention of a million cubic yards of hazardous waste on-site. Additionally, it should entail a thorough cost analysis comparing the removal of waste versus capping and lining in place, with a focus on the implications for the next century and beyond.”

The EPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on CFAC and the petition drive.

The EPA is expected to release a draft Record of Decision this month.