State senator-elect Dee Brown’s Dec. 17 announcement that she had asked the Flathead County commissioners to take the lead in getting the Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. smelter site designated as a Superfund site may have caught some state officials by surprise, but it spurred some action.
Two administrators at the Montana Department of Environmental Quality said they didn’t anticipate Brown’s announcement. Larry Scusa, bureau chief for DEQ’s Federal Superfund Bureau, said the smelter site had been “flying below the radar” for his department, but he wasn’t sure about the Environmental Protection Agency.
That could be because CFAC’s owner, Glencore, a large Swiss-based commodities valued at more than $60 billion, hasn’t clearly said whether it will or won’t restart the plant, which shut down in 2009. Both Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester have tried to get a new power contract for the smelter from the Bonneville Power Administration, but they report having trouble communicating with Glencore.
Jenny Chambers, a division administrator for DEQ’s Remediation Division, said the agency has been tracking CFAC in a database since before 1984 and also keeps tabs on smelter plant through various air pollution, wastewater discharge and other permits.
All told, there are 17 federal Superfund sites in Montana and numerous smaller state Superfund sites, such as for dry cleaners and post-and-pole treating plants. Chambers said the EPA would likely get to work on listing the CFAC site for Superfund status, but because of funding difficulties, the clean-up could go more slowly.
Chambers said that because of Brown’s actions and the media coverage, DEQ officials will suggest starting the listing process when they meet with EPA officials in January. It’s unclear what Glencore will say about that, she said, but some companies are able to continue operations while Superfund clean-up takes place at their site.
To get a site on the federal Superfund National Priorities List and qualify it for federal funding, the EPA begins by collecting information through a preliminary assessment and site inspection. EPA then prepares a “hazard ranking system package” for the site. The site must score at least 28.5 points to get listed.
While the package is being prepared, EPA holds public hearings, requests a letter from the state in support of the listing, and asks for support from community officials and special interest groups. It could take two years from the time the EPA proposes the site be listed to when the site makes the list.
At one time, 10 aluminum smelters operated in the Pacific Northwest. Two Alcoa plants still operate, while five others have been leveled to the ground and backfilled. The quantity of recycled materials from these cleanup operations is staggering, including millions of pounds of steel, aluminum, copper and concrete, along with equipment, carbon and other chemicals.
Cleanup crews at a smelter plant can expect to encounter a wide range of hazardous chemicals, including coal tar pitch, petroleum coke and derivatives from burning; asbestos fibers from pipe and electrical insulation; cyanide from spent potliner; leftover stockpiles of raw materials, such as cryolite, alumina and alumina contaminated by pot gases in the air pollution dry scrubbers; waste oil and lubricants from vehicle and electrical maintenance; and dross, which was skimmed off the surface of molten aluminum in the casting house.
While some hazardous waste may remain confined in a storage area, much of it has blown up and down the quarter-mile long pot rooms and lodged in cracks and crevices — in places, the blackened dust can be several inches thick.
When the CFAC plant first began operating in 1955, pot gases were treated in scrubber towers that used water to remove fluoride. The resulting hydrofluoric acid was treated with slaked lime. After removing the solids, the rest of the fluid went to settling ponds north of the plant.
A common cleanup concern at aluminum smelter plants is spent potliner — a mixture of bricks and carbon paste that reacted with cryolite during the seven-year average lifetime of a reduction pot. Until 1979, the CFAC plant buried up to 16,700 tons of spent potliner each year in an on-site landfill. After 26 years of use, it covered 30 acres.
In 1981, the company announced plans to build several new landfills. One, a 3.5-acre pit intended for hazardous waste, was lined with five feet of clay to prevent seepage, the first such landfill in Montana. A second landfill met the same regulations as the county landfill.
In April 1992, however, the Montana Water Quality Bureau reported finding groundwater with 30 times the legal limit for cyanide seeping into the Flathead River. Plant officials blamed a pit used to soak cathodes with spent potliner, but the plant hadn’t soaked cathodes for 15 years. An environmental engineering firm was brought in to study the problem.
By 1993, CFAC was shipping 6,000 tons of hazardous waste to landfills in Idaho, Oregon and Utah, about half the hazardous waste shipped out of Montana each year. In July 2000, after a lengthy court case, the EPA approved a Texas company for the treatment and disposal of spent potliner.