Last week, the Department of Environmental Quality approved a plan to remove hazardous waste at the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company in preparation for the plant’s demolition.
The aluminum plant stopped processing in 2009, but cleanup of the pot room building, where aluminum was produced, has just been approved.
Calbag Resources is the company contracted to oversee demolition of the plant. Last week, the DEQ approved Calbag’s cleanup plan to remove and dispose of 451 pot liners. These liners contain cyanide and fluoride and are classified as a hazardous waste by the Environmental Protection Agency. They must be disposed before Calbag can continue with its demolition of the plant.
The liners, which together weigh roughly 26,000 tons, will be disposed at the Chemical Waste Management facility in Arlington, Oregon.
For Mike Shepard, a former employee at the plant and a longtime Columbia Falls city council member, cleanup can’t start soon enough.
"I would much rather hedge on having it cleaned up than leaving it untouched," Shepard says.
In 2013 the EPA found small amounts of cyanide in two residential water wells. Last March the agency proposed adding the Columbia Falls aluminum plant to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for long-term cleanup funded by the federal Superfund program.
Shepard says whether it’s by Calbag or the EPA, his priority is that cleanup gets back on schedule.
"Where the plant sits, potentially it could be disastrous if it's not addressed one way or the other, because it's so close to the mouth of the Flathead River, and it all flows downstream from here."
A representative for Calbag says removing the pot liners will likely take two years. There is no indication that any materials are leaching from them. 750,000 pounds of asbestos have already been removed from the site.