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Opinion: Thoughts on CFAC

by CHRIS PETERSON
Editor | August 30, 2023 2:00 AM

Thursday, Aug. 31 is the deadline for people to weigh in on the Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. proposed cleanup plan.

The cleanup plan mirrors other cleanup plans of aluminum smelters in the West, which is to say the waste is primarily left onsite in either existing approved landfills or old landfills that are improved to modern standards.

As far as water contamination, it’s typically treated and then pumped back into the ground.

The main pollutants are common to aluminum plants — primarily fluoride and cyanide from spent potliner.

There’s a stew of other stuff, too. Kaiser Mead, near Spokane, for example, had PCBs, a highly carcinogenic substance, in the siding of all places. It was dripping off into the ground below.

These old plants become dumps ad infinitum.

In CFAC’s case, it seems like we’re heading down the same path. I don’t see the EPA making Glencore, CFAC’s parent company, dig up the old landfills and leaking sludge ponds to haul the waste away.

It should matter that they made about $1 billion on the plant and that former owner ARCO also made about $1 billion on the plant.

But I still don’t see it happening.

Columbia Falls, like it or not, will live with its industrial past for a long, long time. Still, I do believe there is more they could do than they’re planning on.

For example, why not put the slurry wall around all of the landfills? The current plan is just to put it around the worst offenders — the west landfill and the wet scrubber sludge pond.

After having sat through hours and hours of meetings, it’s pretty clear that a lot of stuff was dumped in the landfills, and even after years of tests, we still don’t know where certain parts of the old plant are buried — parts that contain mercury and other nasty stuff.

So why not err on the side of caution and contain the whole thing?

After that, let’s come up with a robust surface and groundwater testing plan, as well as a plan to control water to the greatest extent possible.

Currently a large drainage ditch runs across the property. What happens if we get a high water event and it inundates the site?

Do we end up with a toxic stew in the Flathead River? Maybe, especially if there’s not a good surface water control in place to begin with.

Also, and perhaps most importantly, even after this cleanup, let’s keep people away from the place. I know there’s significant interest in developing lands on the perimeter, but it seems like a bad idea.

Plenty of former workers have said there is stuff buried there that we simply don’t know about and who is to say we don’t find it 20, 40 years down the line?

How would you like to own a nice home and discover a drum was buried in your backyard?

At any rate, those are my thoughts on CFAC. It’s a fine mess. We need to mitigate it as best as we can. But don’t get your hopes up for a true cleanup any time soon.