Fluoride Action Network

County health board wants more answers on Columbia Falls Aluminum site

Source: Hungry Horse News | April 23rd, 2015 | By Richard Hanners
Location: United States, Montana
Industry type: Aluminum Industry

When it comes to cleanup talks for the closed Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. smelter plant, gathering more information about contamination is the stated goal of government agencies and the plant’s owner, Glencore.

But sharp discussion at the April 16 meeting of the Flathead City-County Board of Health shows there’s less agreement about whether the Superfund process is the best way to get that information.

Rob Parker, a site assessment manager at the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 8 office in Denver, recapped previous investigations at the plant for the board.

Sampling conducted in fall 2013 found evidence of groundwater contamination from spent potliner and fluoride sludge beneath the CFAC property, Parker said. About 70 samples were taken up-gradient and down-gradient from suspected sources, mostly older landfills and percolation ponds.

Detected levels of cyanide from spent potliner, fluoride and some heavy metals were three times higher down-gradient from sources and also above maximum contaminant levels for drinking water supplies, Parker said. That’s considered an “observable release,” he said.

Sediments in the Flathead River at the edge of the plant property had detectable levels of cyanide, fluoride and some heavy metals, and Cedar Creek had detectable levels of cyanide, but both were below the maximum contaminant level, Parker said.

The EPA also sampled water from domestic wells used by residents in Aluminum City and north of Aluminum Drive. Two wells had detectable levels of cyanide which were below the maximum contaminant level, Parker said. The EPA re-sampled 20 domestic wells in April 2014 and 10 in November 2014 and did not detect any contaminants, he said.

“So after three rounds of investigation, we know quite a bit about the site,” Parker said.

Parker pointed out that there are “lots of unknowns,” and the EPA doesn’t know the extent of the contamination underground.

“We don’t if there’s a plume of contamination,” Parker said. “There’s a need for more investigation.”

Parker also noted that while the Superfund listing proposal is in the public comment stage, EPA officials need to be careful about what they say.

“We can’t direct the process,” Parker said, suggesting board members send their questions and concerns to the EPA as part of the public process.

That didn’t sit well with board member Dr. David Myerowitz, who wanted to know if the public’s health was endangered by contamination from the smelter site.

“You should have these answers now,” he said.

Parker explained that detectable levels at the CFAC site did not warrant an emergency response, and any further investigations would come after the site was put on the Superfund list.

Flathead County Commissioner Gary Krueger was critical of that process.

“I question why we designate the plant as a Superfund site and then go on to prove how much of a Superfund site it is,” he said.

Myerowitz pointed out the lack of “consistency” in the results of sampling on domestic wells near the CFAC site.

He also wanted to know why the EPA got involved now and why the site needed to be placed on the Superfund list.

“If the plant was still running now, then no one would have rung the bell,” he said.

Parker explained that, like many industrial plants, CFAC operated under a discharge permit from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality that governed surface water. He also said he knew of no instances where CFAC violated its permit.

Myerowitz pressed on. He acknowledged that groundwater beneath the plant was contaminated, but he wanted to know if contamination had reached the Flathead River.

“I’m on the health board,” he said. “I’m not a ‘greenie.’ I’m not trying to clean up the earth.”

Krueger said he prefers to rely on science and numbers, and he expressed concern about how a Superfund listing would impact the Flathead’s important tourist economy.

“When I hear people ask, ‘Can I swim in Flathead Lake?’ — it scares me,” he said. “I’m really nervous about what I’m hearing here.”

Myerowitz responded harshly to Krueger’s comment, noting that as a health board member he was concerned about public health. He accused the commissioner of “throwing a wet blanket” over the issue.

“I find that a little disturbing,” Myerowitz said. “As a county commissioner, you should be getting the DEQ here to investigate.”

When Krueger responded that he wanted more information, health department director Joe Russell pointed out that Myerowitz and Krueger seemed to want the same thing — more information.

“This is why we need more investigation,” Russell said. “We don’t know where the plume is or how big it is, so this is why I invited the EPA here today.”

Parker pointed out that there is no evidence that contamination has left the CFAC site and endangered public health.

“It is important that we get a thorough assessment of the site and take proper steps to make sure we don’t end up with a larger public health problem,” Russell later told the Hungry Horse News. “My main concern is groundwater pollution and migration to drinking water wells in the area.”

Russell also said he didn’t blame DEQ for Glencore breaking off talks on a state Superfund process.

“I wish this was being handled as a CECRA site (state Superfund) and DEQ and CFAC were still working together to assess the site,” he said. “We have several CECRA sites around Flathead County, and these sites don’t seem to be ‘stigmatizing’ Flathead County.”

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