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Cleaning the Columbia Falls Superfund site: ‘We have one chance to get it right’

An estimated 1.2 million cubic yards of contaminated soil are focused on 200 acres near the plant’s former landfills
Posted at 8:31 AM, Apr 15, 2024

Just north of Columbia Falls, high above the Flathead River at the foot of Teakettle Mountain, sits what could be one of the most valuable pieces of private land in the Flathead Valley, approximately 2,400 acres that was once home to the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company.

There’s just one problem: There’s a Superfund site on it.

Fifteen years after the plant was shuttered for good and eight years after it was added to the National Priorities List (also known as the Superfund list), the Environmental Protection Agency is in the final stages of determining how to address the contamination, and the owner of the land is eyeing a sale for future development.

But now, as the EPA is reportedly close to issuing its final Record of Decision, a grassroots group in Columbia Falls is urging the federal agency to slow down, the Montana Free Press Reports. The group, called the Coalition for a Clean CFAC, has said the EPA hasn’t been transparent enough and that the agency’s preferred solution, leaving most of the contamination in place by building a concrete wall around it, could negatively impact the community in the future.

“We have one chance to get this right for the community,” said Peter Metcalf, a Columbia Falls resident and board member for Coalition for a Clean CFAC.

As demand for aluminum increased after World War II, the Pacific Northwest, with ample access to hydroelectricity, became an epicenter for the industry with nearly a dozen large plants scattered across Washington, Oregon and Montana. At one point, more than 11,000 people worked in aluminum production in the region.

In 1955, the Anaconda Copper Mining Company opened CFAC at the base of Teakettle Mountain, just a few miles away from its primary power source, the newly constructed Hungry Horse Dam. The plant eventually employed nearly 1,000 people, making it the largest employer in Flathead County.

While the plant secured Columbia Falls’ spot as the industrial hub of the Flathead Valley, the environmental impacts of CFAC were also soon obvious. In 1969, U.S. Forest Service researchers began to report on the negative impacts of fluoride emissions from the facility on plants and wildlife. Other contaminants, including sodium and cyanide, were soon discovered on site as well.

Ownership of the plant changed multiple times through the second half of the 20th century, finally being acquired by Glencore — one of the world’s largest mining companies — in May 1999. As demand for aluminum waned, Glencore reduced production at CFAC and idled it entirely for the first time in January 2001.

A year later, the plant was restarted, but not to full capacity. It remained open until October 2009 when production was halted for good. In September 2016, after years of back and forth between Glencore and local, state and federal officials, CFAC was designated a Superfund site.

The Superfund site extends for approximately 1,340 acres (not all of the land owned by Glencore) but most of the estimated 1.2 million cubic yards of contaminated soil are focused on 200 acres near the plant’s former landfills where waste from the aluminum smelting process was disposed.

Since it was designated a Superfund site, the EPA has been working with Glencore to find the best path forward, and in 2023, it released a preliminary plan that called for leaving most of the waste in place and surrounding it with a slurry wall. The concert wall below the surface would help prevent groundwater from traveling through the landfills. A report from the EPA states that contaminants from the site have not impacted the nearby Flathead River.

In that proposed plan, EPA officials stated that they had ruled out removing the contaminated soil from the site due to the amount of soil and the cost. Estimates from the EPA suggest that it would take more than 60,000 truckloads to move all of the dirt and cost between $624 million and $1.4 billion.

The closest landfill that can accept contaminated material is in Arlington, Oregon, nearly 500 miles away. The EPA said that there would also be risks to transporting the material either by truck or by rail (a BNSF Railway line passes through the CFAC site) because the material would have to go through dozens of communities in Washington, including Spokane and the Tri-Cities (Hanford, Pasco and Kennewick).

But Metcalf with Coalition for a Clean CFAC said the material can be moved safely and that the cost — which would be covered by Glencore and not taxpayers — should not be part of the EPA’s calculation. He said that Glencore, which made $15.1 billion in revenue last year, had plenty of resources to ensure the clean-up was done right and completely.

“The only ones who would benefit from a quick decision here are the corporations footing the bill,” Metcalf said. “But how does moving forward for the sake of just moving forward benefit the community?”

Metcalf said he believes that most people in Columbia Falls thought that when the CFAC site was designated a Superfund site it would be thoroughly cleaned, so the 2023 proposal to leave most of the contamination in place came as a surprise. He also criticized the EPA for not doing more to keep the community informed, noting that the pandemic made public engagement challenging.

In an emailed statement to Montana Free Press, Dana Barnicoat, an EPA community involvement coordinator, said that the agency “has met with the Coalition for a Clean CFAC and is working with (the group) on a plan to continue to further inform the public about the Superfund process and past work at the Site since the National Priorities List listing in 2016. We are still in the process of reviewing public comments on the Proposed Plan and are working toward a final Record of Decision.”

A Record of Decision could come as early as this spring, and a potential sale of the land hinges on that decision. On April 3, Glencore announced that it had reached an agreement to sell the land to local developer Mick Ruis. The company announced that it would sell approximately 2,200 acres once the Record of Decision was released and the final 200 acres once the site remediation was complete.

Ruis plans to develop the land for commercial, industrial and residential uses, he said in a press release. He noted that the latter would be particularly appealing in an area with some of the highest housing costs in the state.

“This area has the potential the city needs for affordable housing and growth,” Ruis said. “Real estate prices in the Flathead Valley have skyrocketed in the past few years, putting the American dream of home ownership out of reach for many Montanans. We want to build houses at a better rate so more people can live here.”

Metcalf said there’s no denying that the Flathead Valley needs more housing. But he said the EPA and those responsible for CFAC should proceed with caution to ensure that whatever remediation is done today does not cause issues decades later. In his mind, the best way forward is to clean up the site now. He said that would make any housing built in the shadow of Teakettle Mountain a lot more attractive in the future.

“Will people really want to buy a home next to a toxic waste dump?” he asked. “Or do they want to buy a home next to a site that had been cleaned properly?”\