The Rise and Fall of the Columbia Falls Aluminum Plant


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Jul 09, 2023

The Rise and Fall of the Columbia Falls Aluminum Plant

A timeline of events surrounding the development of the aluminum plant at the base of Teakettle Mountain The Anaconda Copper Mining Company first explores building an aluminum plant somewhere in the

A timeline of events surrounding the development of the aluminum plant at the base of Teakettle Mountain

The Anaconda Copper Mining Company first explores building an aluminum plant somewhere in the Flathead Valley if and when a hydroelectric dam is built, either on Flathead Lake or upstream.

The Harvey Machine Company, a Los Angeles-based manufacturing firm, announces it has purchased 1,000 acres of open farmland one mile north of Rose Crossing near the county airport to build a massive aluminum plant. The Korean War prompted a 70 percent increase in aluminum production capacity, leading to the development of new facilities in Wenatchee, Washington, The Dalles, Oregon and eventually Northwest Montana over the ensuing decades. The creation of Hungry Horse Dam made it possible to develop a large plant in this corner of the state.

New plans are crafted to build an aluminum plant near the base of Teakettle Mountain two miles northeast of Columbia Falls. Project managers also look at other possible locations in Coram and the Halfmoon Flats area. The Harvey Machine Company files an application for a $70 million loan with the government to build one plant near Kalispell.

After the Harvey Machine Company fails to gain financing to build the massive facility, the Anaconda Copper Mining Company acquires their interests in the Flathead Valley aluminum plant.

The Anaconda Company announces plans to build a new aluminum plant near the base of Teakettle Mountain outside Columbia Falls. The company ditched plans to build the large facility off Rose Crossing after farmers raised concerns about potential damage to crops and livestock. C.F. Kelley, chairman of the ACM board of directors, says the Anaconda Company intends to construct a completely modern plant, “so that no damage of any kind will result from its operation.” The plant is hailed in local newspapers as an important industrial development that will shepherd in a new era of economic stability in Northwest Montana, despite lingering concerns about the ecological repercussions. “There has been considerable apprehension in the valley by farmers and sportsmen as to the possible destruction of plant and wildlife by waste products from the plant. These fears are without foundation,” an editorial written by the Daily Inter Lake on Aug. 31, 1952 stated. “Thanks to the foresight of Cornelius F. Kelley, chairman of the board of the Anaconda Aluminum Company, this plant will not cause the slightest damage to our farms, forests or streams.”

The Anaconda Company receives more than 750 applications to work at the new plant, which is under construction.

Nearly 1,600 workers are employed to build the new aluminum plant, including the 130-foot tall paste plant, which becomes the tallest building in the Flathead Valley. The main building where the potliners are stored and the aluminum is made is 1.75 million square feet — or 40 acres — in size, making it the largest building in Montana.

At 9:15 a.m., the first electrical power is applied to the plant’s 120 aluminum reduction pots.

After three years of development and cost overruns, the Anaconda Aluminum Company plant opens with a formal dedication that draws over 7,000 people. Originally planned to cost $45 million, the plant ended up costing $65 million, equivalent to $580 million today after adjusting for inflation. Robert E. Dwyer, president of the Anaconda Company, celebrates the facility as “the most modern aluminum plant in the world.”

The plant adds a third potline to the two existing potlines, expanding the annual capacity from 67,500 tons of aluminum produced annually to more than 100,000 tons.

A fourth and fifth potline is added, increasing production to 180,000 tons of aluminum per year, or about 1 million pounds per day.

Clinton Carlson, a researcher with the U.S. Forest Service, reports on the impacts of fluoride emissions from the aluminum plant on the surrounding plant species and wildlife. Carlson said the fluorides are extremely toxic and pollution remains three to five times higher than air quality standards. University of Montana botany professor Clancy Gordon was the lead person for investigating the impacts of fluoride emissions on Glacier National Park under a contract with the National Park Service.

Local orthodontist Loren Kreck and his wife Mary file a class-action lawsuit against the Anaconda Aluminum Company, citing scientific evidence that industrial air pollution — specifically, fluoride emissions from the Anaconda-owned Columbia Falls aluminum plant six air miles away — were harming wildlife by pumping poisonous gas into the air at a rate of 10,000 pounds per day. Kreck’s lawsuit becomes the largest civil lawsuit in the history of the 11th Judicial District Court, seeking more than $24 million in damages. Kreck becomes somewhat of a public pariah due to the high-profile lawsuit against the town’s top employer, and bumper stickers emerge reading, “To Heck with Kreck.”

District Court Judge Robert C. Sykes dismisses the Kreck lawsuit without prejudice. The company spends millions on new environmental controls, and emissions soon drop from 10,000 pounds per day to 861 pounds.

The plant’s owners invest $42 million in product techniques and efficiencies to reduce emissions and electrical consumption, bringing production to 185,000 tons per year.

Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) purchases the Anaconda Company, a merger with combined assets of $9.37 billion. With 981 employees and a payroll of $16 million annually, the aluminum company is the largest employer in Flathead County.

The aluminum property is registered by the state Department of Environmental Quality as a large-quantity hazardous waste generator and transporter.

ARCO announces intentions to divest its metals division — the brass and aluminum operations — including the Columbia Falls plant. Low aluminum prices and high electric costs plague the facility, which consumes nearly one-quarter of all the power used in Montana.

The Montana Department of Health and Sciences conducts a preliminary site assessment at the property, finding hazardous and solid wastes are generated on site.

Brack Duker and Jerome Broussard begin negotiating the purchase of the aluminum plant, which is losing money due to the struggling market. ARCO is seeking to get rid of the Columbia Falls facility as it divests its metal division.

ARCO sells the plant to the Montana Aluminum Investors Corporation, led by Duker, a former ARCO officer, and Broussard, for a symbolic $1. The property begins operating as Columbia Falls Aluminum Company, or CFAC. Company officials persuade hundreds of workers to take a 15 percent pay cut in return for a 50 percent share of any future profits. Duker assures workers that if the aluminum market ever recovered they would be properly compensated.

CFAC begins cutting operating costs while threatening to close the plant as leverage with politicians and government agencies, while residents wait with anxiety. The plant gains huge cuts in electricity rates and property taxes as a result. The market recovers and CFAC becomes a money-making machine.

CFAC is evaluated under the Montana Comprehensive Environmental Cleanup and Responsibility Act and is referred from the CECRA List to the DEQ Hazardous Waste Program as a generator of hazardous waste.

Duker and Broussard dismiss their chief financial officer, Revo Somersille, after Somersille raises concerns about their financial practices.

Roberta “Bobbie” Gilmore, an accountant at CFAC, files a lawsuit against CFAC, claiming the owners had failed to properly pay workers their share of the company’s profits. The lawsuit claims employees received $84.2 million during the previous six years while Duker and Broussard took in $231.4 million, which was funneled to offshore bank accounts.

In a case garnering national attention, U.S. District Judge Jack Shanstrom holds hearings that conclude the five-year profit-sharing lawsuit. Duker agrees to pay the workers $97 million, nearly double his previous offer and eight times the initial proposal he made in 1995.

Glencore AG, a global commodities trading and mining giant based in Switzerland, purchases CFAC. Within a year, Glencore enacts production curtailments.

For the first time in its history, the entire plant is idled.

Production restarts and, for the next seven years, runs between 10 and 60 percent of capacity.

CFAC halts production indefinitely, eliminating nearly 200 jobs.

State Senator Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse, initiates the EPA Superfund assessment of the CFAC site.

The EPA agrees to investigate the CFAC site for possible Superfund listing.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester criticizes Glencore for misleading the community of Columbia Falls and says, despite Glencore’s public statements, the company “never had any intentions of [reopening CFAC].”

DEQ begins talks with Glencore about the state having authority over the investigation so cleanup can be completed more quickly.

CFAC ends negotiations with DEQ after the two sides are unable to agree on the terms of the Administrative Order on Consent.

Tester writes EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy urging her to list CFAC as a Superfund site.

Glencore announces that it is permanently closing the plant.

Calbag Resources, a Portland, Oregon-based firm that specializes in decommissioning industrial sites, begins tearing down and salvaging all of the above-ground materials at the CFAC property, including more than 50 structures.

The Columbia Falls City Council sends Tester a letter encouraging him to continue to push for Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. to be added on the National Priorities List for Superfund sites.

Wells are installed on the CFAC site to begin studying ground and water samples.

The EPA declares CFAC a Superfund site.

Clarifications: The timeline was updated to correct “potliners” to “potlines.” A potline is a single direct current circuit that includes a number of reduction pots. Also, University of Montana botany professor Clancy Gordon was the lead person for investigating the impacts of fluoride emissions on Glacier National Park under a contract with the National Park Service. There was no agreement in the Kreck class action lawsuit that established an allowable limit for fluoride emissions at the AAC plant. The Kreck case was simply to stop the plant from damaging personal property.

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