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Coeur d’Alene Basin mine waste deal huge

Blood-soaked feathers from a dead swan lie near the Strobl Marsh near Rose Lake, Idaho, in April. Lead-contaminated sediments from the Coeur d’Alene River corridor have poisoned  swans. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman Review)
Blood-soaked feathers from a dead swan lie near the Strobl Marsh near Rose Lake, Idaho, in April. Lead-contaminated sediments from the Coeur d’Alene River corridor have poisoned swans. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman Review)

Nearly $600 million allotted for cleanup

Cleanup of mine waste in the Coeur d’Alene Basin got a $583 million shot in the arm Thursday, when Asarco Inc. agreed to settle environmental claims at 80 toxic sites around the nation.

Asarco paid $1.8 billion to settle the federal government’s claims in 19 states as part of a 4-year-old bankruptcy proceeding. The payment is the largest recovery in the history of the federal Superfund program.

“It demonstrates the government’s commitment to ‘the polluter pays’ principle,” said Mathy Stanislaus, a top Superfund official at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “It ensures that responsible parties – and not taxpayers – pay for the cleanup of hazardous waste.”

Asarco produced silver, lead, zinc and copper for 110 years. The company left a toxic legacy at mine sites and former smelter operations in the Northwest, Midwest and South.

Asarco was a longtime operator in Idaho’s Silver Valley, where lawns are dug up and replaced to protect children from lead dust exposure. Mining pollution also takes a toll on the region’s wildlife. Each spring, migrating tundra swans die of lead poisoning from ingesting metals-laden sediment in marshes along the Coeur d’Alene River.

“From the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s perspective, this is an outstanding day because the settlement will finally provide serious money to clean up the toxic legacy of mining in the 19th century,” said Chief Allan, chairman of the tribe’s governing council.

Nearly $600 million for Superfund work is a staggering sum, said Jon Cantamessa, chairman of Shoshone County’s board of commissioners.

“It’s hard to comprehend that amount of money,” he said. “Anytime you have funding at that level, particularly in this economy, it’s going to make a difference.”

EPA officials said the settlement will go a long way toward addressing pollution problems in the basin. More than $2 billion worth of cleanup work remains in an area that stretches from the Coeur d’Alene River’s headwaters to Lake Coeur d’Alene and parts of the Spokane River. Rural Shoshone County, where the unemployment rate hit 17 percent in November, should receive an economic boost from the work.

Dan Opalski, EPA’s regional administrator in Seattle, said he couldn’t predict when the first projects will get under way. However, “you can expect to see a ramping up of the cleanup activity,” he said.

In recent years, taxpayers spent about $16.5 million annually on basin cleanup, primarily for projects that reduced children’s lead exposure. The federal government continues to seek monetary claims against other Silver Valley mine operators.

EPA anticipates using part of the Asarco settlement to halt the spread of heavy metals through flooding in the Coeur d’Alene basin, Opalski said. During high water, contaminated soil gets carried downstream, where it’s deposited on beaches and recreational areas.

Another $80 million will address damage to the environment, including the toxic marshes along the Coeur d’Alene River, said Don Steffeck, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “It’s going to initiate some wonderful restoration projects,” he said.

Federal attorneys spent more than 50,000 hours preparing the government’s case against Asarco. In 2005, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in Texas after the price of copper fell. Rising commodity prices helped the federal government recover its full claim against Asarco, including interest payments.

“This is a company that actually made money while it was in bankruptcy, which is a tribute to the debtor-in-possession,” said John Cruden, a deputy attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice.

Filing for bankruptcy doesn’t allow companies to evade their environmental liabilities, he added.

Asarco, based in Tucson, Ariz., is a subsidiary of Grupo Mexico. Several companies competed for control of Asarco during the bankruptcy process. Grupo Mexico was allowed to regain control of Asarco’s assets in exchange for full payment of Asarco’s debts.

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