EPA finds groundwater and residential wells contaminated downstream of Columbia Falls Plant

Apr 17, 2014

The Columbia Falls Aluminum Plant is eligible for “Superfund” designation. The Environmental Protection Agency recently released a reassessment report looking at contamination on the site, and in nearby waterways. Site Assessment Manager Rob Parker called this a screening assessment. They did not look at all potential sources for contamination, but focused on the landfill, percolation ponds, and sludge pond.

“That’s one of the outcomes of this site assessment is that we determined that there is contamination at the site itself as well as in nearby areas and we feel that more investigation is warranted at this site,” Parker said.

The EPA conducted the assessment at the request of Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester.

The Flathead River flows south from the Plant, and Parker says cyanide and fluoride were found in the groundwater at the site, and downstream in the river. The EPA also tested nearby residential wells and found cyanide.

“I should be clear that the detections of cyanide were below EPA’s maximum contaminant levels, which are the regulatory levels that EPA sets for municipal water supply under the Safe Drinking Water Act,” Parker said.

Further residential well samples were gathered last week and will be studied to determine human health risks. Parker said the EPA makes the final decision about a Superfund designation, but works with the state and local community to ensure support. The EPA recently hosted a public meeting to talk about the report results, and open up a dialogue between the city, and the Agency.

“We want to folks to know that we’re receptive to ideas and that their input is invaluable. They’re the folks that live on the ground there, and understand more than we do what the potential concerns can be,” Parker said.

After designation would come what Parker called the “remedial investigation,” identifying as many sources of contamination as possible, and determining long and short term human health risks. This would form a blueprint for how cleanup would take place. The final decision would get made in the fall.

In the meantime he says the EPA will be reaching out to current and former Plant owners to get them involved in the cleanup process.

The plant began operation in the 1950’s under the Anaconda Company. It has since been owned by the Atlantic Richfield Company and a group of investors before being purchased by Glencore in 1999.

The report is available online: