KALISPELL – Despite occasional glimpses of hope that the Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. plant would resume operations, the shuttered facility’s future is more uncertain than ever as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency begins investigating the site for hazardous pollutants and skepticism over the prospect of a long-awaited power deal mounts.
And while officials say neither a federal cleanup nor a site investigation would automatically preclude the plant from reopening if a deal was brokered, the scenario seems increasingly unlikely, though not out of the question.
“We came close a couple times. Most recently we had some Christmastime hopes that there was going to be an announcement that they would reopen,” Virginia Sloan of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester’s office told the Flathead Basin Commission at its meeting Wednesday. “We’ve been disappointed several times when they led us down a path of hopefulness and it did not happen. Some folks say it has been idle too long.”
Negotiations to coordinate a power deal between Glencore, the Swiss commodities giant that owns the plant, and the Bonneville Power Administration have plodded along for years without coming to fruition. Meanwhile, frustration has grown in the beleaguered community of Columbia Falls, where the plant’s closure in 2009 forced the layoff of nearly 90 workers as high energy prices and poor market conditions made operations unprofitable.
The lack of action recently prompted Tester to publicly criticize Glencore for misleading him, the BPA and the community of Columbia Falls. In an effort to steer the plant’s future in a new direction and mitigate potential hazards to the environment and human health, Tester and fellow Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Baucus sent a letter to the EPA urging a study of contamination levels at the plant to determine whether it should be declared a Superfund site – a designation that could create cleanup-related jobs and provide a boon to the economy.
A Glencore official has agreed to visit the plant this month, Sloan told the Flathead Basin Commission, which signals that the company, the largest commodities trading group in the world, may be taking a serious look at its options, particularly as it may be charged with footing the bill if a cleanup is warranted.
“At least we know we’ve got their attention,” Sloan said of the planned site visit by Glencore official Matthew Lucke, who works out of Glencore’s headquarters in Switzerland.
The Flathead Basin Commission, which was formed in 1983 to monitor and protect water quality in the Flathead Basin, invited Sloan and Julie DalSoglio, director of the EPA’s Montana office, to update the group on the potential for contamination of soils, groundwater and air.
The Montana senators requested an evaluation of the 120-acre industrial area because it has not been inspected since 1988 and may pose a threat to the community and jeopardize future economic development. The plant continued to operate for more than two decades after the most recent inspection.
Officials with the EPA and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality agreed that another inspection of the smelter plant was overdue, and said they will work closely with the public to keep them formed.
“I hope there is a robust, transparent opportunity for the public to be very involved in this process. Communication is really key, and that is one thing that EPA has promised,” Sloan said.
EPA officials will assess risks posed by the plant’s decades-long handling of hazardous materials, including cyanide, zinc and a host of other raw materials common in industrial use. The agency will gather environmental data from the plant’s solvent landfills and wastewater ponds that handled plant discharge.
The initial investigation, slated to begin this summer, will likely take one year, DalSoglio said, while an additional year will be spent assessing the data and reviewing public comment. The EPA could spend another two years on enforcement actions and cleanup approval; depending on the complexity of the site, the actual cleanup could require between two and five years, she said.