Wednesday, June 19, 2024

More time needed to consider CFAC cleanup plan

by Roger Hopkins
| April 28, 2024 12:00 AM

CFAC. Glencore. Slurry walls. Waste in place. Cyanide. Spent pot liner. Affordable housing. CCC. EPA. ROD. TANA. TAG. CLP. ECRWSSEDDM... . 

Whew! Enough already! In the words of the late, great John Lennon: “Just gimme some truth!”

The fundamental question being asked by a small group of volunteer citizens is this: has adequate study and independent analysis been completed to conclude that pollution from 50 years of aluminum production at the Columbia Falls Aluminum Plant (aka CFAC) can be treated on site near the banks of the pristine and precious Flathead River without future harm to the citizens and wildlife of the Flathead, or to the degradation of surface waters and aquifers of the Flathead River Basin? 

Or, in the alternative, should the waste and contamination at the Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site be hauled away to a federally approved and licensed disposal facility? 

Members of the Coalition for a Clean CFAC say too many unanswered questions remain to put at risk one of the last best places in Montana. Without further study, irreversible health and environmental damage to neighboring and downstream citizens and communities in the Flathead River Basin is possible. 

Yet, in the latest iteration of the ongoing debate to determine the best way to treat the pollution, a newsletter from CFAC suggests truth is being manipulated by coalition members.  

For argument’s sake, let’s assume that the members of the coalition “made several false allegations about the community involvement and site assessment processes” in making their plea to pause the EPA’s record of decision on the preferred alternative for cleanup of the site. Also, let’s take at face value that CFAC, as stated in their spring 2024 newsletter, “wants to ensure the Community Liaison Panel has the facts and can correct misinformation being perpetuated by the [coalition].” 

Without getting into the citations in the CFAC/Glencore mailing of what the coalition has allegedly misstated, it seems the company’s suggestions beg for the process to be halted in order for these “false allegations” to be reviewed. Knowing some of the coalition members personally, I have no doubt that should it be shown their allegations are indeed false, they will be the first to apologize and correct the record. 

That said, it’s possible that the alleged “misinformation being perpetuated by the [coalition]” is due to a lack of information and answers to the coalition’s questions. It’s also not unreasonable to believe that the powerful and wealthy owners and stockholders of Glencore could be putting their influence and public relations experts to the task of supporting the least expensive solution to their pollution problem: a slurry wall and “waste in place.” 

The CFAC newsletter devotes a full page of their eight-page letter citing the effectiveness of slurry walls. One is proposed for keeping pollution at CFAC from seeping into the Flathead River. They offer “a slurry wall success story” about one built at the World Trade Center that survived the collapse of the Twin Towers. It’s a troubling comparison at best; specious at worst. 

Nevertheless, in what appears to be a good-faith effort to have some questions answered, CFAC has scheduled two evening meetings held last week.

Both CFAC and the coalition deserve credit for those meetings: the coalition has gotten the attention of CFAC, and CFAC has responded appropriately. The meetings ideally should bring about greater understanding of the facts surrounding the proposed cleanup options and a mutual agreement that more time is needed to evaluate these proposals and sort out the facts. This would build trust and mutual respect for what is in the best interests of the community today and tomorrow, without undo consideration of the cost to Glencore’s stockholders. 

Additionally, the EPA appears willing to delay issuing their final decision upon receiving an application for a technical assistance grant and the outcome of an independent study. Such a grant was made available to the City of Columbia Falls in 2022, but according to a January 2023 EPA technical assistance needs assessment report, “the municipality did not have the capacity to administer the grant.” 

The future health of the river, groundwater and that of Columbia Falls residents and those downriver isn’t the only reason for further study and analysis by means of the so-called grant. The recent and surprising report that Columbia Falls developer and community advocate Mick Ruis has offered to buy 2,400 acres of the Glencore-owned property is further justification. 

Ruis proposes the largest “affordable housing” development in the city’s history. Anyone interested in buying a home next door to the Superfund site will surely want assurances that there is no pollution on site to harm themselves or their children. 

The technical assistance needs assessment report early last year notes that even though EPA models don’t show groundwater contamination affecting residential wells, “...there are many questions about the hydrological processes, the dependability of the models, (and future) monitoring to ensure wells are not compromised,” asking, “what will be done if contamination does impact these residential wells? 

“The community would value having a neutral advisor who would tell them if the information EPA shared is incomplete, especially entering the Proposed Plan stage of long-term cleanup.” 

While not specifically mentioned by CFAC in their Spring newsletter, questions have been raised about the timing of the coalitions’s efforts. CFAC points out that members of the coalition did not attend any of the CLP meetings held during the last eight years. This echoes critiques about the coalition’s efforts heard in public and private conversations: where were the coalition members early on in the review process; why, at this last minute, are these concerns being heard? 

The writer(s) of the technical assistance needs assessment report at least partially answered this question by interviewing people in 2022 who “expressed frustration over perceived apathy about the site.” They reported several reasons for this, including “’out of sight and out of mind’ due the site’s location out of town, to people thinking the cleanup finished with demolition of buildings at the site, to community distrust of the nature, risks and associated cleanup of site contamination.” Whatever the reasons, we are here, now and the concerns are real. 

Finally this footnote: I believe I explained most, if not all of the words and acronyms in the first paragraph of this editorial, all but ECRWSSEDDM. Those, like me, who have a love/hate relationship with acronyms will either love or hate this one. ECRWSSEDDM stands for Extended Carrier Route Walking Sequence Saturation – Every Door Direct Mail. 

This is how CFAC delivered notice of last week’s meetings to every Columbia Falls mailbox. If even 1 percent of those in the 59912 ZIP code showed up for those meetings, there would be standing room only. 

Roger Hopkins lives in Columbia Falls.