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EPA, CFAC Owners Reach Investigation Agreement

The Environmental Protection Agency today designated the former Columbia Falls Aluminum Company as an official Superfund site.
Corin Cates-Carney

The Environmental Protection Agency announced an agreement today about the clean-up of the Columbia Falls Aluminum Plant. 

It says the site’s current owner, Columbia Falls Aluminum Company, will conduct a comprehensive investigation of soils, river sediments, and ground and surface water to determine the nature and extent of contamination at the site, located two miles northeast of Columbia Falls. The company will pay EPA to oversee the investigation.

The results of the investigation will determine cleanup needs and identify potential cleanup options at the site. The EPA and Montana Governor Steve Bullock’s administration have advocated for making the former aluminum smelter a Superfund site. The site’s owner, a Swiss firm called Glencore, has resisted such a designation.

An EPA spokesman says the agreement will help the agency determine fully how contaminated the site is, and begin to address threats to human health and the environment at the site. 

"They've got 40 plus wells that they are going to install to help define where the ground water contaminates might be and which way the ground waters flow. That's all going to start this spring when the weather breaks," Mike Cirian from the EPA said. 

He said EPA is encouraged that the company has committed to an aggressive investigation of the contamination in a legally binding agreement.

"We've got a 4-million dollar letter of irrevocable credit that incase CFAC is unable or unwilling to finish the work, that gives the EPA the authority to go in with a contractor," Cirian said. 

An initial EPA assessment says ground and surface water at the site contain contaminants including cyanide, fluoride and various metals. That contamination threatens a fishery containing federally protected bull trout and west slope cutthroat trout.

Governor Bullock and Senator Jon Tester, both Democrats, praised today's agreement. 

“The plant was a critical part of the economy of Columbia Falls and the site has been idle for too long," Bullock said. "It has tremendous potential for redevelopment and will be an important anchor in the future of the region.”

In a press release from Bullock and Tester,  Columbia Falls resident and real estate Broker Bill Dakin said, "It's good news. We've come to a "trust but verify" comfort level. The CFAC people have been straightforward, but the more you know about the corporate culture of the parent company Glencore, you just have to be watchful.  We could never have gotten to this place without public officials bringing pressure."

The public meeting to discuss the investigation and next steps will be held in Columbia Falls January 21.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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