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CFAC promises to be a dump forever

by CHRIS PETERSON
Editor | July 5, 2023 2:00 AM

So I’ve sat through hours of meetings on the Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. cleanup and read through hundreds of pages of documents and I’ve come to the following conclusion: It will always be a dump of some sort or another.

I know many residents want to see the waste dug up and hauled away, but that just isn’t going to happen, not because it shouldn’t — it probably should, at least to some degree — but because the EPA hasn’t made other plants remove waste.

I’ve looked at plans of a couple of sites that have been “cleaned up” under the Superfund law, most notably the Martin-Marietta site in Dalles, Oregon and the Kaiser Mead plant outside of Spokane, Washington.

A common theme immediately arises — high concentrations of fluoride and cyanide in the groundwater. Kaiser Mead also had a large amount of PCBs, a chemical that was found in the siding on the plant. It’s nasty stuff and will give you cancer.

But the waste in both plants wasn’t hauled away. It was moved to another landfill onsite that was capped and lined, but it wasn’t hauled entirely away.

When I looked at Kaiser Mead a Washington official noted the simple reason they don’t haul away the waste: It’s just too expensive. In the case of Kaiser Mead, the company that owned the plant went bankrupt. The bankruptcy plan paid for cleanup up to a point, but not enough to haul the waste away.

So they pump out groundwater and treat it for cyanide and fluoride and then pump in back into the ground when it’s cleaned up to standards.

It’s a 24/7 process that seems to have no end, at least in my lifetime. I suppose someday institutional knowledge of these sites will fade, like everything else. (Just like the amnesia of the multiple other dumps in Columbia Falls).

CFAC could very well end up like Kaiser Mead. Will the slurry wall work? I have no idea. But if it doesn’t work, the EPA will have to come up with another plan, it concedes.

The irritating thing about CFAC is that regulators knew 30 years ago that there was cyanide and fluoride in the groundwater, but little was done about it then.

It’s the legacy of aluminum production.

Columbia Falls prided itself in being the industrial hub of the county and the plant made a valuable product. It is important to keep in mind that some of the waste, most notably spent potliner, wasn’t necessarily deemed toxic at the time it was dumped.

But now we know it leaches some very toxic stuff. I think most of us know what a teaspoon of cyanide will do to you.

There is one more CFAC meeting coming up, and interested folks should really attended. Karmen King of the firm Skeo will be in town to talk about her findings on the proposed cleanup and will answer any questions.

She’s with the Technical Assistance for Communities program and is a Superfund expert.

She’s already suggested the slurry wall be extended to surround the center landfill, in addition to the west landfill and the wet scrubber sludge pond (the latter are the two landfill currently leaking cyanide).

I think the slurry wall should be extended to include all of the landfills. In other words, contain all the dumps. They may not all be leaking today, but they will someday.

King is in town for meetings July 12. One is from noon to 1:30 p.m., the other from 5 to 6:30 p.m.

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