Former employees remain skeptical of tests at CFAC site

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This CFAC potline was partially dismantled by the company prior to Calbag taking over the plant.

After a full year of groundwater testing, the main pollution plumes appear to be coming from two landfills and an old sludge pond at the Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. Superfund site, a hydrogeologist with Roux Associates asserted .

But former employees continue to express skepticism of the testing being done, airing their concerns at a community meeting last week.

Mike Ritorto, a hydrogeologist with Roux, noted that tests continue to show high concentrations of cyanide and flouride near the landfills and the flow of the pollution is downstream to the Flathead River.

As the water flows toward the river, the concentration of pollutants decreases dramatically, the well tests have shown.

In addition, test wells near homes in the Aluminum City neighborhood west of the old plant continue to be clean, Ritorto noted.

All told, the site has more than 60 test wells in and around the defunct aluminum plant.

But the results were met with skepticism by some former employees who worked at the plant. Former plant engineer Nino Berube questioned why the test wells weren’t showing up with other contaminants, like hydrocarbons and mercury. He noted that the former rectifier used mercury switches and when they went bad, they were simply dumped on site. He also claimed there were old fuel tanks that were buried at plant as well and thousands and thousands of gallons of contaminated cooling water were injected into the groundwater.

In addition, he said the roads should also be checked out, because waste oil from the plant was sprayed on the dirt roads to keep the dust down.

In short, Berube claimed more tests needed to be done.

Others plant workers seemed to concur and at the very least, former plant workers’ knowledge of the site should help form when and where to do further tests at the site.

“I’m amazed that they continue to ignore the wealth of knowledge of former employees,” Mike Shepard, a former employee and Columbia Falls City Councilman said as an observation of the testing that’s been done to date.

Ritorto noted that some of the volatile organic compounds, like what would be found in waste oil and coal tar pitch used at the plant have been found in the soils, but not in the groundwater.

“The contaminants of concern are flouride and cyanide,” in groundwater, Ritorto said the test results show.

Higher water levels in the spring showed the cyanide concentrations moving to the east near the plant’s middle landfill, but only because the wells didn’t have any water in them in the first round of tests, when the groundwater was lower, Ritorto noted.

Mike Cirian, the project manager for the Environmental Protection Agency said he welcomed input from former employees, but noted that “just poking holes in the landfills hoping to find something isn’t the right way to do it.”

Cirian said a hole in a capped landfill could make problems worse, not better, allowing contaminants to spread.

While the tests and results continue, the plant itself is slowly, but surely, being torn down by Calbag Resources, said CFAC manager John Stroiazzo.

Stroiazzo said by mid-November all of the old pots will be removed from the plant and the buildings that housed them are slowly being taken down as well.

The basements are filled with approved fill from the site. The first potroom has already been completely demolished and the entire plant should be leveled about a year from now.

Stroiazzo said there has been a lot of discussion on the future of the site.

“But so far, no one has offered to set up shop,” he said.

The future use of the site plays into the human health aspect of the cleanup.

In the next six months or so, the EPA will formulate a human health risk assessment of the property that will look at the future human health risks at the site, said Susan Griffin, a toxicologist with the EPA.

The assessment, however, doesn’t look at the past risks to former workers at the plant, she noted.

The panel, which is made up of city and county leaders, company representatives, the EPA, state and federal representatives and members of the public, will meet again sometime in May. At that time, they plan on taking a tour of the site.

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