By: Myers Reece
At a city hall listening session on Tuesday with U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, Columbia Falls government officials and residents discussed the future of the shuttered Columbia Falls Aluminum Company plant, including the possibility and ramifications of getting the industrial property designated as a Superfund site.
Tester and fellow Montana Democratic Sen. Max Baucus sent a letter in early March to the Environmental Protection Agency urging the agency to study contamination levels at the aluminum plant to determine whether a Superfund declaration is warranted.
The letter called on the EPA to "assure that contamination is assessed and remediated and that future leaks of cyanide, zinc, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons are contained," and specifically asked the agency to look into the risks posed by solvent landfills and percolation ponds.
The senators say a Superfund designation would create jobs through hazardous material cleanup and open the doors to potential new businesses to locate at the site in the future, if the plant doesn't reopen for aluminum production. The plant's owner, Glencore, closed down the facility in October 2009, citing aluminum market conditions and electricity prices.
Tester reiterated his stance that reopening the plant as an aluminum producer would be the best option, but he is skeptical after three-plus years of unsuccessfully trying to negotiate a power contract with Bonneville Power Administration and Glencore. The senator said Glencore hasn't given him reason to believe negotiations will come to fruition.
"At some point, you do feel like you're getting led down the road," the senator told the crowd assembled at Columbia Falls City Hall, adding that the EPA study would help decide options other than continuing to go "down this road of false hope."
Columbia Falls Mayor Don Barnhart and Freedom Bank President Don Bennett expressed similar frustration with Glencore. Bennett, in his role on the board of Flathead County Economic Development Authority, said he had an unfavorable experience with Glencore when the group was looking to purchase the property for an industrial park.
Bennett said the economic development authority paid for a property appraisal, offered full price and then additional incentives, but eventually Glencore quit returning phone calls. Now the group is moving forward with plans to establish an industrial park in Kalispell.
Bennett thinks it's time to study contamination at the plant and said that mitigation could occur even if the plant is reopened.
"We need to do something - the sooner the better," he said.
But Haley Beaudry, CFAC's longtime spokesman, warned about the repercussions of an EPA declaration. Beaudry, who's from Butte and has seen the impact of the Berkeley Pit Superfund designation, said it would be difficult to reopen the CFAC plant once it's declared a Superfund site because of restrictions on operating.
Beaudry is holding out hope for the facility to reopen. He mentioned a 10-year power contract that Alcoa signed with BPA in December for its aluminum smelter in Washington. But he also acknowledged that aluminum prices are poor and plants are shutting down around the world.
There was also talk at the meeting of equipment being purchased for the CFAC plant and Glencore officials possibly planning to do a walkthrough of the facility.
Some in attendance questioned whether taxpayers would end up footing the bill for Superfund cleanup or if the responsibility will fall on the companies responsible for the pollution. Under the Superfund program, the EPA seeks to identify the parties responsible for the pollution and compel them to pay for the cleanup.