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COLUMBIA FALLS – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will begin investigating the shuttered Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. plant for hazardous pollutants, a step that could lead to environmental remediation.

The site assessment is in response to a letter from U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus requesting an evaluation of the 120-acre industrial area, which has not been inspected since 1988 and may pose a threat to the community and jeopardize future economic development.

The Democratic senators urged the EPA to study contamination levels at the plant, which has been closed since 2009, to determine whether it should be declared a Superfund site – a designation that could create new jobs cleaning up hazardous materials and support new business opportunities for the region’s economy, the senators said.

Officials with the EPA and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality agreed that an inspection of the smelter plant was overdue.

“Our office had previously conducted a preliminary assessment and a site inspection at this facility in 1986 and 1988, respectively. The EPA and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality agree that site conditions have likely changed from 1988, and the appropriate next step will be for the EPA to conduct a site reassessment using current protocols,” according to the EPA’s response.

EPA officials will assess risks posed by the plant’s decades-long handling of hazardous materials, including cyanide and zinc. The agency will gather environmental data from the plant’s solvent landfills and wastewater ponds that handled plant discharge until the 1980s.

The CFAC plant began producing aluminum in 1955, with production reaching 180,000 tons by 1968. At its height, the plant employed 1,500 people and was central to the area’s economy. When it shut down at the end of October 2009, the closure forced the layoff of nearly 90 workers as high energy prices and poor market conditions made operations unprofitable.

Negotiations to secure a reasonable power contract between the Bonneville Power Administration and plant owner Glencore have plodded along for years as poor market conditions persist.

Baucus and Tester asked the EPA administrator to coordinate with the DEQ to begin a site assessment of the CFAC production facilities and the adjoining areas – including the Cedar Creek drainage – for a listing on the National Priorities List under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, commonly known as Superfund.

EPA officials could not estimate a timeframe for the investigation due to the smelter site’s “complexity and its location,” according to the EPA response. “But it will be a priority for the EPA, and we anticipate completing our assessment within one year, depending on available resources.”

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Reach Tristan Scott at @tristanscott, at tristan.scott@missoulian.com or at (406) 531-9745.

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