June 14, 2011 in Idaho

Hecla Mining Co. settles Superfund cleanup lawsuit

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Settlement at a glance

  • Hecla Mining Co. reached $263.4 million settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and the state of Idaho. The settlement ranks among the top 10 cash awards in Superfund history.
  • Lead, arsenic and other heavy metals from mining operations have polluted 160 miles of the Coeur d’Alene River, its shoreline and downstream water bodies including Lake Coeur d’Alene and the Spokane River.
  • Hecla is the last large mining operator to reach a settlement in the long-running lawsuit.

The owner of Idaho’s oldest operating silver mine agreed to pay $263.4 million plus interest to clean up historic mine waste in the Coeur d’Alene Basin, resolving one of the nation’s largest Superfund lawsuits.

Hecla Mining Co. reached the settlement Monday with the U.S. Department of Justice, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and the state of Idaho. The settlement ranks among the top 10 cash awards in Superfund history, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The money will be used to clean up lead, arsenic and other heavy metals, which have polluted 160 miles of the Coeur d’Alene River, its shoreline and downstream water bodies including Lake Coeur d’Alene and the Spokane River.

The metals threaten both people and wildlife. About 150 tundra swans died this spring after ingesting toxic doses of lead in marshes along the Coeur d’Alene River. Some of the river’s tributaries are too polluted to support fish.

To protect children from lead exposure, about 5,800 residential properties in Idaho’s Silver Valley have had their lawns replaced. Additional cleanup is needed to protect people who recreate along the Coeur d’Alene River, said Dan Opalski, the EPA’s Superfund director in Seattle.

Hecla owns the 69-year-old Lucky Friday Mine in Mullan, Idaho. The company is the last large mining operator to reach a settlement in the long-running lawsuit. Two years ago, Asarco settled its environmental liabilities in the Coeur d’Alene Basin for $452 million.

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe initiated the lawsuit in 1991, with the federal government joining the suit a few years later. The state of Idaho signed on Monday to resolve its ongoing claims against Hecla.

“This settlement brings decades of litigation to a close and provides a clear path to continue restoring the health of the environment, economy and communities of the Coeur d’Alene Basin,” Idaho Gov. Butch Otter said.

The settlement provides money to accelerate Superfund cleanup work, but won’t bankrupt Hecla, which remains one of the Silver Valley’s largest private employers, according to Opalski.

He said the lawsuit dragged on so long because it pitted “significant legacy” pollution issues against “a strong interest” to retain mining as part of the Silver Valley’s economy and culture.

In the late 1800s, mineral discoveries brought thousands of prospectors to North Idaho and fueled the Inland Northwest’s economic growth. But pollution came with the wealth. Mining companies dumped about 100 million tons of waste rock laced with heavy metals into the Coeur d’Alene River system before pollution controls went into effect in the late 1960s. Hecla is responsible for 31 percent of the tailings released into the Coeur d’Alene Basin, according to an earlier court ruling.

Hecla acknowledged the settlement in a brief news release Monday. Earlier this year, Hecla CEO Phil Baker told financial analysts that settling the lawsuit represents an important milestone for the 120-year-old company, which is based in Coeur d’Alene.

As a result of record metals prices and mine production, Hecla has $322 million in cash and cash equivalents. Baker told analysts that the company could pay the settlement without sacrificing future growth opportunities. Hecla is sinking a new shaft at the Lucky Friday Mine, a $200 million investment to access richer ore. Hecla also owns a mine in Alaska and has properties in Colorado and Mexico.

The settlement also represents a milestone for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, said Chief Allan, the tribe’s chairman. Twenty years ago, the tribe was concerned that not enough was being done to clean up the basin following a century of hard-rock mining.

“Against all odds, the tribe made an unpopular decision to bring one of the largest Superfund lawsuits in our nation’s history,” Allan said.

Three tribal leaders instrumental in that decision – Henry SiJohn, Lawrence Aripa and Richard Mullen – didn’t live long enough to see the settlement, Allan said, but “… I’m sure they’re smiling down on us today.”

“The tribe is hopeful that this settlement marks a new chapter in the stewardship of the land we all hold dear,” he added.

The EPA has been performing cleanup work in the Coeur d’Alene River Basin since the early 1980s. Despite years of cleanup, the federal government estimates that $2 billion worth of work remains.

The cleanup work from Hecla and Asarco’s settlements will create jobs in the economically depressed Silver Valley, officials said. Exact job figures weren’t available Monday, but it should be similar to the 272 cleanup jobs created by past infusions of federal stimulus dollars, except on a longer-term basis, said Cami Grandinetti, the EPA’s Coeur d’Alene Basin team leader.

The consent decree was filed in U.S. District Court in Boise. It is subject to a 30-day comment period and approval by the federal court.


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