Shannon Stringer has an opinion that’s not entirely popular in Columbia Falls.
“I do. I've gotten into heated discussions with other people in the community, including fellow co-workers, that are totally opposite,” he said.
Stringer thinks it’s a good thing that the former Columbia Falls Aluminum Company was listed as a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency last September.
“Somebody's got to clean this up. And if it’s left to the taxpayers, which I’m one of, I might get very upset. But the EPA has the recourse of going after the owners who are responsible in recovering those funds,” he said.
Stringer worked at the aluminum plant for almost 40 years, often handling potliners — the material that most concerns the EPA due to high levels of fluoride, cyanide and other contaminants. Now he sits on the CFAC community liaison panel. This panel is something the EPA sets up to involve local residents with representatives from the agencies and companies responsible for cleanup.
“They’re keeping us up to date on everything they possibly can, and I think they're taking us down the right path with our community. The community is very concerned about this facility and what’s going to happen to it,” he said.
Stringer takes me on a hike above the former plant’s sprawling concrete campus, mostly hidden from view between the Middle Fork of the Flathead River and Tea Kettle Mountain. We follow a game trail up a little hill to get a view of the plant.
“If you find any horns they're mine,” he says.
From up here, it looks like a ghost town, except for a few guys burning a scrap pile next to abandoned railroad tracks. Stringer starts pointing out specific areas of the plant he’s concerned about:
“Well of course, Aluminum City. The concern here is the down-flow of groundwater in Aluminum City wells. So that’s their big concern. My concern is the materials that were used here, and if they’re going to be cleaned up or not. So, up here where that snowfield is ...”
He points just north of a row of ten quarter-mile-long hangars, where they used to make aluminum.
“That’s what we called black pond. Everything from the potliners went into that pond. So that debris, that waste, coming from the potliners is still in there. That’s my main concern, is that going to go into the groundwater or not,” Stringer says.
Nicky Ouellet: What kind of concerns have people on the community liaison panel brought up with the EPA?
Shannon Stringer: Of course the length of study that's necessary. They don't understand why it's that long.
The EPA is still in the early stages of study, trying to outline the extent of contamination. This phase could take another few years.
Stringer’s got a few other concerns, but groundwater contamination is the main one. Some areas have elevated levels of fluoride, cyanide and other contaminants, but the EPA says no emergency response is needed at this time — that’s after results from the latest round of sampling were released a few weeks ago.
At this point, a Sheriff’s officer pulls up on the forest road beneath us.
Stringer keeps telling me what needs to get cleaned up at the plant, this time pointing to the roofs of the 10 hangars where they made aluminum. They look like giant, elongated black clam shells.
SS: In those clamshells is decades and decades of material and fumes coming up and collecting up there. So when they do that, they’re going to have asbestos concerns.
We scramble down the hill at the request of the Sheriffs. They ask what we’re doing up there and say some guys at the plant thought we were trespassing. We explain we just wanted to see it, they ask if we need a ride out. We start the walk back to the car, followed by the procession of patrol vehicles.
NO: Do you feel like all the agencies involved, do you feel like they're communicating with you enough? Do you feel like you know what's going on at the site?
SS: Yes I do. I appreciate what they do. They send you a mailing once a month and give you updates, at least me. And then of course as a liaison panel member, it’s part of your responsibility, if you don’t understand it, to communicate with the community. Because I've lived here so long, people know me. They know I've been involved at the aluminum plant. I've been stopped at the grocery store or on the street and been asked what's going on with the plant.
Stringer says it’s going to take a while, but he’s pleased to know the area is being reclaimed into something of value for Columbia Falls.
The CFAC community liaison panel’s next meeting is Wednesday at 6:00 p.m. at the Columbia Falls High School cafeteria. The EPA will give a site update and talk about recent sampling results. The meeting is open to the public.
Mike Cirian, EPA project manager for the CFAC site, and Robert Moler, EPA community involvement coordinator, are scheduled to attend two meetings in Columbia Falls next week and talk about the CFAC site.
- City of Columbia Falls Council Meeting Monday, April 17, 2017 @ 7:00 p.m. City Council Chambers, City Hall, 130 6th St West, Columbia Falls Montana 59912.
- CFAC Community Liaison Panel Meeting Wednesday, April 19, 2017; @ 6:00 p.m. Columbia Falls High School Cafeteria, 610 13th Street W., Columbia Falls, MT 59912.