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EPA says it would be tough to remove all of the waste at CFAC

by CHRIS PETERSON
Editor | May 1, 2024 2:00 AM

The Environmental Protection Agency made its strongest case yet for a “waste in place” solution for the cleanup of the Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. Superfund site during a public meeting last week.

Many members of the Columbia Falls community have called for removing the waste and hauling it off to an approved landfill in Oregon by rail.

But that comes with a cost estimated to be between $624 million and $1.4 billion. Cost was just one factor in the EPA’s analysis of that alternative, Matt Dorrington, project manager for the EPA told the capacity crowd.

He said other larger factors came into play. For one, there’s about 1.2 million cubic yards of waste at the West Landfill and the former wet scrubber sludge ponds that would have to be removed. Getting all of the contaminated soil, where spent potliner from the plant was dumped for more than 30 years, would be impossible.

“There will always be some level of contamination,” he said. “Could you get 80-90%? Maybe,” he said.

Removing the soil also has the potential to expose workers to cyanide gas, which is deadly. Spent potliner, which comes from the bottom of the pots used to make aluminum, is high in cyanide and fluoride. As such, groundwater near the dumps is also very high in both poisons. But once it diffuses through the groundwater beneath the site, the concentrations are low to the point where they meet drinking water standards in wells near the Flathead River, tests have shown.

Also, digging up the waste will result in a large hole which would have to be filled.

Once the waste is dug up, “You’ve got a massive pit full of water,” Dorrington said.

The fill costs are not included in the estimate, he noted, just the cost to haul the waste away.

In addition, the waste would have to be spread out and treated before being loaded up into railcars. The process would take years and, Dorrington argued, far worse than the EPA’s slurry wall strategy.

The EPA’s proposed action for cleanup is to dig up contaminated soils at the site, consolidate them in a landfill and then surround the West Landfill and the Wet Scrubber Sludge Pond with a slurry wall made of Bentonite (which is a kind of clay found in Montana and Wyoming) and soil.

They would then install wells both inside and outside the wall to monitor whether contaminated groundwater is seeping out. If need be, a separate water treatment facility would be built to treat the water seepage.

All of this would be paid for by Glencore, the current owner of the facility, and the Atlantic Richfield Co., who formerly owned the plant. ARCO has been found to be partially responsible for cleanup under Superfund law.

The public, however, continues to express skepticism about the slurry wall solution, namely because it leaves the waste in place forever. They also worry about what they claim are high cancer rates in neighborhoods near the plant and openly questioned whether the plant was to blame.

The cost of the slurry wall is estimated to be about $57 million.

“My own child’s cancer treatment was $5 million,” resident Heather Peacock said as she argued that more needed to be done. “I’m asking you to look at the site for the sake of those that live here. We’re not just numbers.”

Jim Peacock, a high school science teacher wondered how the EPA would test to see if the landfills were leaking from the bottom.

Engineer Peter Deming, who has done several slurry walls in other locations, including dumps in New Jersey and Baltimore, Maryland, said much work needs to still be done.

Engineers would make about 19 borings surrounding the site to determine where the “Aquitard” layer is — the layer of soil and silt that water doesn’t penetrate. He said current tests show it to be about 100 to 105 feet down.

The key, he noted, was that the slurry wall, which would be about 3 feet thick, ties in and adheres to that lower layer so it doesn’t leak.

Some have brought up concerns about future earthquakes cracking the wall.

But he said that was unlikely, as the wall is flexible.

“This is the best wall you can buy for an earthquake zone,” he said.

When asked directly about walls he worked on that failed, he said there were four of them, and they all didn’t tie into the Aquitard correctly.

The crowd also had concerns about plans from developer Mick Ruis to purchase the land from Glencore and turn the property outside of the landfills and former plant site into housing.

Who would be responsible if the homes were found to be contaminated in future years?

Dorrington said the EPA under Superfund centers on cleanup of the site and the appropriateness of housing is dependent on local government and zoning controls.

There would certainly be lifelong restrictions on development of any sort on 202 acres of landfills that currently exist on the site, he said.

But Deming noted that the slurry wall projects in New Jersey and Baltimore did have buildings either adjacent to or directly on top of the projects.

If Ruis were to develop the property, much of it is outside of the polluted areas and he’s said no houses would be built in contaminated areas. The site is 2,400 acres total, with a little less than half being part of the Superfund site.

Contamination for example, wasn’t found in wells in Aluminum City, which is housing adjacent to the site, after 10 years of testing.

The next step in the process is the release of the Record of Decision, but when that will come, Dorrington couldn’t say. It is apparently waiting for a decision by the EPA’s regional offices.

Politics could also be coming into play, as Montana Sen. Jon Tester recently wrote a letter to the EPA with concerns about “waste in place” plans not only at the CFAC site, but at other dumps in Montana.

Tester said in March  the EPA wasn’t “listening to the people on the ground” when it came to cleaning up toxic waste dumps across the state. He recently wrote a letter to EPA brass where he was critical of its “waste in place” strategy for several Superfund sites in Montana, including CFAC.

He said during a conference call with reporters at the time that he hoped to get EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan to visit Montana and listen to community concerns, including those in Butte, Missoula and Columbia Falls.

So far, that hasn’t happened, but public interest has zoomed upward since a group of Flathead Valley residents formed the Coalition for a Clean CFAC and began a petition drive against a “waste in place” solution.

The Superfund process has been ongoing since 2016, but few people ever attended the EPA’s meetings over the years, until now.

Last week’s meetings hosted capacity crowds and nearly everyone had concerns about the cleanup.