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Columbia Aluminum

The Columbia Aluminum Plant is an aluminum smelting facility on the Washington side of the Columbia River near the John Day Dam. The plant is operated by Columbia Gorge Aluminum, LLC. Columbia Aluminum is capable of producing 178,000 tons of aluminum and aluminum alloys every year.


The Columbia Aluminum Plant has been transferred through the possession of several companies during its lifetime. The first owner was Harvey Aluminum, which constructed the original plant in 1970. Smelters such as Columbia Aluminum require very large amounts of electricity, and so a site was chosen near the John Day hydroelectric dam in Washington.

A year later, Martin Marietta purchased the facility and undertook operations until 1985. The plant was then abandoned for a short time before Commonwealth Aluminum recommenced operations. In 1987, the plant was idled again and remained so for 18 months before Columbia Aluminum bought the site and restarted operations. After that, the Goldendale Aluminum Company purchased it and then eventually changed its operating name to Columbia Gorge Aluminum, LLC.

Plant Facilities and Output

The plant consists of an on-site laboratory and administrative offices, a carbon paste plant, four reduction cell lines and even an on-site sewage treatment plant.

The smelter itself is similar to that used by all modern aluminum smelters. The aluminum is produced by electrolytically reducing aluminum oxide into liquid aluminum. Three reduction lines, with a total of 526 electrolytic reduction cells, continuously reduce alumina to molten aluminum metal.

As of the most recent reports, the smelter is capable of producing around 30,000,000 pounds of finished product each month.

Aluminum Foundries and Asbestos

In the greater part of the last century, whenever excessive heat or combustion was a danger, asbestos was used as a building material. Materials that contained asbestos, accordingly, were commonly utilized in the building of aluminum foundries like the Columbia Aluminum Plant. Resistance to electrical current is one of the other properties of asbestos. Given the high demand for electricity when refining aluminum, asbestos, therefore, was not only used in the building itself, but also in turbines, motors and machinery in the plant. Asbestos' resistance to corrosive chemicals also caused it to be used in lab equipment, protective garments and bench tops. And while the asbestos served its purpose well in preventing the spread of fire and in protecting life and property from high heat, it also exposed those same people to significant health risks.

Chrysotile was frequently the kind of asbestos utilized in these locations. For a long time, chrysotile was touted by corporate interests as "environmentally friendly", despite scientific evidence to the contrary. Although it was banned as a construction material in the 1970s, this chrysotile, which was frequently mixed with amphibole asbestos and used to create asbestos transite, was utilized for many years in aluminum foundries across the United States.

Asbestos transite displayed properties like cement; it could be molded into working surfaces, laminated and sprayed onto ductwork and pipes. As long as it remained solid, this form of asbestos posed no immediate danger. Microscopic particles of asbestos enter into the air, however, as this transite grows older and becomes prone to becoming powdery. That is, such asbestos is friable, which is defined as easily crushed.

The Problem with Friable Asbestos

Friable asbestos is hazardous since in this condition the fibers can be readily dispersed into the atmosphere. When someone inhales these fibers, they can damage the lungs, resulting in cancer or asbestosis. Another unusual, and generally lethal, disease linked to asbestos is mesothelioma. The pleural form of mesothelioma cancer, which attacks the lining between the lungs and the pleural cavity, is the most common. If those particles of asbestos in the air land on food or drinks and are then swallowed, pericardial or peritoneal mesothelioma can result, although they are less common than pleural mesothelioma.

Increased pressure from citizen groups, the press and researchers resulted in rules controlling the use of asbestos. However, when foundries like the Columbia Aluminum Plant were constructed, the use of asbestos was more prevalent. And even now, asbestos from the past may be the source of problems if it is not properly handled during remodeling and demolition jobs.

Asbestos Exposure - a Hidden Danger

Asbestos cancer, unlike many job-related injuries, which are easily observed and known about immediately following the causing incident, may take many, many years to appear. It can also be difficult to identify asbestos-related disorders since the symptoms can be mistaken for the symptoms of other, less serious conditions. It is vital, therefore, that folks who worked at or lived around smelters such as the Columbia Aluminum Plant inform their doctors about the chance of asbestos exposure. Moreover, spouses and children of these people are also at risk, as unless strict decontamination protocols, such as the use of on-site showers, were followed, it was all too common for personnel to bring asbestos fibers on their persons or their clothing.



Baker Library Historical Collection - Harvey Aluminum Incorporated

Department of Ecology, State of Washington - WA Ecology Industrial, Columbia Gorge Aluminum - aka Goldendale Aluminum

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) - Laboratories and Shops

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal

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