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Anaconda Aluminum

The Anaconda Company Aluminum Smelter was located on the Hungry Horse Dam at Columbia Falls, Montana. Today the facility is known as Columbia Falls Aluminum and is owned by a Swiss company called Glencore.

Plant History

The Hungry Horse Damn was the first damn built by the federal government after World War II. It was completed in 1953, and soon after, the Harvey Aluminum Company optioned an aluminum plant on a 1,000-acre plot north of Kalispell at Rose Crossing.

Harvey was unable to obtain financing to build the plant, but Anaconda Copper Mining Company purchased Harvey Aluminum on November 6, 1951. On August 30, 1952, Anaconda announced that it would build its $65 million aluminum reduction facility two miles northeast of Columbia Falls near Teakettle Mountain.

The facility construction saw cost overruns of $20 million, but nearly three years after first breaking ground, on August 12, 1955, the plant produced its first aluminum.

Facility Capacity

The original design of the plant called for two potlines with an annual capacity of 67,500 tons. In 1965, however, a third potline was added with a resulting production increase of 100,000 tons annually. A fourth potline was added in 1968, and production went up to 180,000 tons per year.

New production techniques introduced in 1976 reduced emissions and electrical consumption and brought production to 185,000 tons per year.

Fate of Anaconda and the Plant

The Anaconda Company was acquired by Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) in 1977. Unlike other assets of Anaconda, the aluminum plant continued to produce. In December of 1983, ARCO announced that it would sell its brass and aluminum operations (including the Columbia Falls plant) in September of 1985.

The plant was sold to the Montana Aluminum Investors Corporation and began operations under the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company.

In 1999, a privately owned Swiss corporation called Glencore acquired Columbia Falls Aluminum Company.

Asbestos in Aluminum Foundries

In most of the 1900s, various forms of asbestos were chosen as insulation when fire or excessive heat was a concern. As a result, it was usual for foundries such as the Anaconda Company Aluminum Smelter to be constructed with materials that contained asbestos. Along with being a fire retardant and temperature-resistant, asbestos is also impervious to conducting electrical current. Given the high electrical needs when fabricating aluminum, asbestos, therefore, was not only used in plant structures, but also in heavy equipment, power generators and motors in the plant. Asbestos' resistance to corrosive chemicals also meant it was used in coating materials, safety clothes and bench and counter tops. And although the asbestos did well in preventing fire damage and in protecting people from excessive temperatures, the mineral also exposed those same people to serious health risks.

Chrysotile was most often the type of asbestos utilized in such facilities. For a number of years, chrysotile was touted by corporate interests as "environmentally friendly" and the "good asbestos", in spite of mounting proof to the contrary. This chrysotile or "white" asbestos was often combined with amphibole asbestos and used to create asbestos-containing transite, which was utilized for decades before being banned in building materials in the 1970s.

Similar to cement, asbestos transite could be molded into working surfaces and sprayed onto ductwork and pipes. As long as asbestos transite was solid, this form of asbestos posed almost no hazard. With age, however, transite with asbestos-containing material (ACM) grows prone to crumbling, allowing microscopic fibers to flake off into the air. Asbestos when it is in this condition is considered friable, a term that is used to describe material that is easy to crush.

The Problem with Friable Asbestos

Friable asbestos is hazardous since in this condition the fibers can be readily dispersed in the atmosphere. Diseases such as asbestosis and cancer are known to result from inhaling asbestos. In addition, inhaling asbestos is the primary cause of pleural mesothelioma, a rare but often lethal cancer of the mesothelium, the tissue that lies between the lungs and the chest cavity. Pericardial and peritoneal mesothelioma are linked to ingesting asbestos fibers, which is likely if microscopic particles are released into the air and land on food or in beverages.

Because scientific inquiry resulted in more awareness of asbestos' serious effects on human health, employees today are protected by stringent regulations controlling how to use asbestos. However, when facilities such as the Anaconda Company Aluminum Smelter were constructed, the use of asbestos was much more common. And even now, asbestos from long ago can cause problems if it is not properly contained during demolition and remodeling jobs.

The Ticking Bomb

As opposed to most on-the-job injuries, which are easily observed and known about soon after the causing incident, asbestos cancer may take many, many years to develop. With such a lag between exposure to asbestos and the appearance of the resulting disease, a worker may not even associate his or her current condition with work he or she did 10 or more years earlier. It is vital, therefore, that men and women that worked at or lived around plants like the Anaconda Company Aluminum Smelter tell their doctors about the chance of exposure to asbestos. New treatments for mesothelioma cancer are being developed, and early detection gives patients the best chance of beating the once always-fatal disease.



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