This history project runs from ancient times to the closing of the aluminum plant in Columbia Falls. Many people will not want to read it from start to finish, although the chapters often are linked with transitioning information. Here are some suggested topics and where one would find them.
Aluminum compounds were used for medicine and dyeing centuries prior to its discovery as an elemental metal. Early chemists sought to isolate the metal and then produce it on an industrial scale. See chapters 1 and 2.
Building an industry
Following the discovery of the modern Hall-Heroult reduction process that made aluminum production possible on an industrial scale, patent disputes threatened the success of the U.S.’s first aluminum company. The Pittsburgh Reduction Company, later renamed Alcoa, made successful investments in property and technology toward establishing a vertically-integrated company, while finding new ways to manufacture and promote aluminum products. See chapters 3 and 4.
Safety and health
Aluminum smelters share risks common to all heavy industry. Hazards found at an aluminum smelter include falling objects, vehicle collisions, burns, electrocution and disease. See chapters 7, 22 and 23.
Industrial unions grew slowly in the U.S. until the Great Depression. Union development in the U.S. aluminum industry was a little faster under the Alcoa monopoly. The Anaconda Company dealt harshly with unions, but there was less opposition by the time the aluminum plant in Columbia Falls started operating. The plant’s workers, many of them construction workers who built the Hungry Horse Dam and the aluminum plant, chose to organize under a trade crafts council rather than an industrial union. See chapters 8, 20 and 21.
World War II
International cartels and a secret military build-up pre-dated World War II, but the U.S. had important advantages over the Germans and Japanese –natural resources, manpower and geographical isolation from bombing attacks. The Pacific Northwest’s hydroelectric dams and ten aluminum smelters provided the strategic material needed to build the aircraft that helped the Allies win the war. See chapters 10 and 11.
The aluminum monopoly in North America was met with Federal Trade Commission and U.S. Justice Department lawsuits that eventually led to the break-up of Alcoa in 1928 that created Alcan. That was followed by a 1945 anti-trust court ruling, congressional hearings over surplus war plants, and more court rulings in 1950 and 1957 – all of which opened the door for the Big 3 aluminum producers Alcoa, Reynolds and Kaiser. See chapters 9 and 12.
TheBonneville Power Administration began planning for power development in the Pacific Northwest before World War II. The planning continued through a time of shortages in the 1950s. After that came the Hungry Horse and Libby dams in Montana, regional power planning and legislation in the 1970s and 1980s, and finally the devastation of deregulation during the 2000-2001 West Coast Energy Crisis. See Chapters 11, 14, 40 and 52.
The Harvey affair
The story of the Harvey Machine Co. begins with the arrival of immigrants from Tsarist Russia and leads to political intrigue in Washington, D.C. that ultimately blocked the company’s plans to build an aluminum plant in Montana. See chapters 15 and 16.
Indians and pioneers in the swampy wilderness of northwest Montana were followed by steamboats and railroads, timber and tourism. Flathead County’s towns competed with each other while surviving the Great Depression and enduring seasonal unemployment. The Hungry Horse Dam and the Anaconda Aluminum Co. smelter provided the year-round jobs needed to break that cycle. See chapter 13.
The Anaconda Company
The history of the Anaconda Company began on the Richest Hill on Earth, in Butte. After winning the War of the Copper Kings, the company dominated Montana with the “copper collar.” The loss of the Chuquicamata copper mine in Chile was followed by corporate decay from within and finally acquisition by the Atlantic Richfield Co. See chapters 17 and 39.
Building the plant
The first step in building an aluminum plant in the Flathead Valley was picking a site. That was followed by surveying, testing and choosing a French design using Soderberg reduction pots. The smelter was expanded from four potrooms to 10 in the 1960s. See chapters 18, 19 and 27.
Following an economic roller-coaster ride in the Fifties, the Anaconda Aluminum Co. moved straight on into the roaring Sixties, expanding the company through acquisition and merger toward vertical integration, with alumina refining, shipping, fabrication plants and a second smelter. See chapters 24, 25, 27 and 28.
The fluoride problem
Industrial air pollution involving fluoride in Europe dates back to the late 19th century and continued into the 1970s. Attempts to regulate air pollution in the U.S. were unsuccessful until the Clean Air Act of 1970. Numerous lawsuits had been filed against aluminum smelters across the U.S. beginning in World War II, and the federal government began to investigate aluminum plants in the 1970s. Industrial air pollution in Montana began with smelters in Butte and culminated with the phosphate plant in Garrison and tepee burners at timber mills. The work of early activists and regulators helped lead to the creation of Montana’s Clean Air Act in 1967. See chapters 29, 30, 31, 32 and 33.
The fluoride solution
Impacts from fluoride pollution emitted by the Anaconda Aluminum Co. smelter in Columbia Falls were first noticed in the late Fifties, but conditions reached a cusp after the fifth potline went into operation in 1968. The situation was met with denial and then acceptance by the public, the media and the company. Investigations by the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service paralleled individual, class-action and federal lawsuits, while the Anaconda Company searched for a solution. The big variance was followed by the big conversion, as the company implemented new equipment and finally attained state compliance. See chapters 34, 35, 36, 37 and 38.
Saving the smelter
A successful grassroots movement helped keep the aluminum plant in Columbia Falls open and operating while power prices climbed and ARCO closed Anaconda Company mines and plants across the state. Brack Duker and Jerome Broussard stepped up and created the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company. See chapters 40, 41, 42 and 43.
Employees at the Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. plant made significant wage and salary concessions in exchange for profit sharing as part of the effort to save the plant. The company’s owners, however, didn’t abide by their promises, and evidence of wrong-doing accumulated in the lawsuits brought by the employees. The story devolved into foreign intrigues and hidden offshore money, security guards and strong-arming of labor negotiations, and political posturing. The historical settlement was accompanied by public outrage. See chapters 44, 45, 46 and 47.
The business and criminal history of Marc Rich and his commodities-trading company Marc Rich & Co., which became Glencore in 1994, has been well-publicized. His success in creating spot markets in oil and aluminum trading made him a creative destructor. His pardon by President Bill Clinton in 2001 just added to his legacies. See chapters 48, 49 and 50.
The final years
The aluminum plant in Columbia Falls operated successfully as a tolling plant following its acquisition by Glencore – at least until the West Coast Energy Crisis entirely shut down the plant for the first time in its history. The company attempted to climb out of the energy hole and become a viable plant again, with support by Montana’s congressional delegation, but market realities were too much. See chapters 51, 52, 53, 54, 55 and 56.
Many of the hazardous wastes found at the aluminum plant in Columbia Falls were found at industrial sites around the U.S. Its groundwater pollution problem was also similar to problems found at other aluminum plants. The politicized debate over listing the plant property as a Superfund site was perhaps less typical. See chapters 57, 58, 59, 60, 61 and 62.
Six of the largest aluminum companies in the world merged into two super companies, while Russian aluminum companies combined and joined with Glencore. The Swiss commodity trader’s initial public offering and merger with Xstrata was followed by the 2008 Wall Street crash and a commodities recession that diminished the giant company’s hopes. Meanwhile, the phenomenal rise of China’s aluminum industry continued unabated, and researchers looked to technology to address the aluminum industry’s energy consumption and pollution problems, while aluminum consumption continued to increase. See chapters 63 and 64.