Call me a skeptic – that’s how this history project started. I had just got hired on as an industrial electrician at an aluminum smelter in Columbia Falls, Montana – a giant plant with quarter-mile long potrooms and a switchyard that could power a Montana metropolis. Both the size of the plant and the unfamiliar production technology were bewildering, and I was still learning the ropes a month or two after I was hired on in February 1997. The electrical equipment ran the gamut from 1950s-era motors and breaker panels and a 200-kilovolt switchyard to computerized process controls linked together by an optical-fiber network. Sometimes I felt like I was in a retro science-fiction movie – with green clouds of poisonous fumes hanging over hundreds of strange school bus-sized machines manned by men in gas masks.
One day as my fellow electricians were showing me around, I could sense something was afoot. I had seen the graffiti scrawled on the concrete basement walls beneath the pots of molten aluminum, and the neon sign near the entrance to the plant with three glowing letters – “EFP.” And I was aware of the workers’ vehement hostility toward the company’s owners. The Columbia Falls Aluminum Company wasn’t known as a hotbed of union activity. It was reportedly the last plant in the U.S. with a trades council representing the workers – one large industrial union and about a dozen trades unions joined together as a collective bargaining unit. A few diehard union guys beat the drum every few years when a labor contract was up for renegotiation, but most of the time the workers did their jobs and then just went home.
The cause of all this anger and frustration was one of the oldest wrongs in human history – theft. The workers thought they had struck a deal with the plant’s owners in 1985, a fifty-fifty split for profits in exchange for cuts in pay and benefits. But evidence had surfaced showing the owners had not fairly distributed the plant’s profits, and a complex lawsuit brought by salaried and hourly workers was weaving its way through a federal court in Missoula – with side tours to offshore banks in the Cayman Islands and Isle of Mann. It was a sizeable theft – the number bantered around the plant ranged from $100 million to $200 million. That didn’t seem too farfetched to me – filling in as a graveyard shift electrician, I had scooted through the silent pot rooms after midnight in a little electric cart, knowing the 600 reduction pots were churning out a million pounds of aluminum metal every day. That was $365 million a year if the plant ran at full capacity and metal prices were a dollar a pound.
What caught me by surprise, however, was hearing the workers bring up the name of the most notorious fugitive in U.S. history. The Flathead Valley had seen its share of paranoid politics over the previous six years, and my first thought was, “Here we go again.” I was familiar with Marc Rich’s name, but over the decades his fame and fortune had moved him from the FBI’s Most Wanted List to the realm of conspiracy theorists. As a skeptic, I began searching the Internet and soon learned about Rich’s links to the Ravenswood aluminum smelter in West Virginia and a company named Glencore – which bought the Columbia Falls smelter two years later. That’s when I had a “eureka” moment – between the profit-sharing lawsuit and the Marc Rich story, maybe I had the makings of an interesting history study.
About 18 years earlier, I had worked for a research firm in Missoula where I learned how to use a computer database to track large historical projects. I had also learned a lot about the Anaconda Company, which built the Columbia Falls aluminum plant in the 1950s and ran the smelter to the late 1970s. I created a database and started adding information from newspapers, press releases, government reports, correspondence and legal documents. Over the years, I found that little tidbits of information socked away in the database neatly linked together to tell a story. By the time I turned to converting the database into a narrative, I had more than 5,500 separate source documents, ranging from one paragraph to several hundred pages, abstracted into more than 8,000 chronological entries. The overall story had grown well beyond Anaconda, Marc Rich and profit sharing to include 19th century chemistry, international cartels, anti-trust lawsuits, World War II industrialization, scandalous politicking in Washington, and a well-documented history of pollution by aluminum smelters around the world.
While taking history classes at the University of Montana in the early 1990s, I learned that the title of K. Ross Toole’s 1984 book “Montana, An Uncommon Land” had drawn criticism from some reviewers who believed the Anaconda Company’s dominance over Montana was not a unique situation. Around the world, giant natural resource companies have held sway over states, regions and even nations since colonial times. I found myself asking the same question about the aluminum smelter in Columbia Falls – was there anything unique about this plant? The first question I typically heard from people was why an aluminum smelter was built in the mountains so close to the Continental Divide and so far from bulk ocean-going transportation. But aluminum smelters today can be found all over the world in strange locations – from the high desert of Egypt to the North Atlantic island of Iceland. One even was proposed for Patagonia.
The Columbia Falls aluminum plant’s history is replete with political and economic hurdles, but many of these difficulties were not unique to northwestern Montana. The smelter’s struggle for cheap power was common to aluminum plants around the U.S. Few smelters exist in the U.S. today because of their power problems. In the 1950s, aluminum ingot heading to a strategic stockpile was measured in terms of electric power – so many tons equaled so many megawatts, metal stored up like an electrical battery. Aluminum smelters typically were built near energy sources, and abundant natural gas in the Middle East may prove to be the greatest source yet. Montanans often expressed astonishment at the size of the plant in Columbia Falls and the amount of power it consumed, but its 170,000 ton-per-year capacity pales by comparison to million-ton-per-year smelters in Russia and the Middle East. And China now boasts more than 40 smelters each with twice the capacity of the Columbia Falls plant.
There was an air pollution saga in Columbia Falls, but Montana had pollution problems in Butte, Anaconda, Great Falls, Missoula and Garrison long before fluoride emissions from the Columbia Falls plant became a front-page story. And the proximity of Glacier National Park to the Columbia Falls aluminum plant could be compared to the proximity of jungle wilderness near present-day smelters in Brazil, Africa and Malaysia. It should also be noted that the more aluminum a plant produces, the more hazardous emissions it produces, and large smelters in the former Soviet Union that ran for decades with little in the way of pollution control are surrounded today by hundreds of square miles of wasteland. China’s wastelands are still under development – it’s only been three decades since effective air pollution control equipment has been in use, and its effectiveness depends on plant management.
The Columbia Falls profit-sharing case could be considered unique – but only in the type of theft involved. Marc Rich, the founder of the company that last ran the smelter in Columbia Falls, was one of the most notorious criminals in U.S. history, and Glencore has been accused of carrying on the same Machiavellian trading tradition. When it comes to criminal management, however, the crown surely goes to Russia, where murder and mayhem helped re-structure the former-Soviet aluminum industry. The replacement of labor by machinery at the Columbia Falls smelter is likewise not unique. While the plant automated reduction pots with computers and installed ergonomic labor-saving devices to reduce pinpullers, that’s nothing compared to 21st century manufacturing and shipping facilities, where robots outnumber people.
Which leads to something that may be unique about the Columbia Falls plant – the nature of the people who worked there and who lived in the local community. This is not a case of looking through rose-tinted glasses. The workers and management at the smelter managed to keep Model T equipment running like an Indianapolis race car, as one employee noted. That took good common sense and seat-of-the-pants engineering and maintenance, and it kept the plant competitive against more modern plants. The local residents should also be credited for their support at public meetings where they shouted down Bonneville Power Administration bureaucrats, and for their letter-writing and lobbying of Montana’s congressional delegation. This level of support, however, only went so far. In the end, rising power costs marked the plant’s demise. After a slow frustrating downward spiral, the plant was destined for scrapping out and a Superfund cleanup – which is also not uncommon for aluminum smelters.
Richard Hanners, June 2017