A federal judge has approved a $263.4 million settlement with Hecla Mining Co. that resolves one of the nation’s largest Superfund lawsuits.
The money paid by Hecla will be used to clean up historic pollution in the Coeur d’Alene River Basin, including toxic levels of lead and other heavy metals in sediment.
In a ruling Thursday from the bench, U.S. District Court Judge Edward J. Lodge said the negotiated settlement will avoid “what otherwise would have been decades” of additional litigation in the 20-year lawsuit. Terms of the proposed settlement were announced in June.
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe filed the first lawsuit over mining pollution in the Coeur d’Alene Basin in 1991, with the federal government and the state of Idaho later joining the suit. “The tribe has fought long and hard to preserve this water and this land,” said Howard Funke, the tribe’s attorney.
Attorneys said the settlement provides money for ongoing cleanup without forcing Hecla out of business. Under the settlement, the 120-year-old company will pay $167 million within 30 days. The remaining money will be paid over a three-year period, with interest.
“I can’t emphasize the significance of Hecla getting to this point intact, not bankrupt like so many of the historic mining companies,” said Betsy Temkin, a Hecla attorney. The company operates the Lucky Friday Mine in the Silver Valley, and also has properties in Alaska and Mexico.
Government and tribal attorneys reviewed confidential business information from Hecla and consulted outside financial analysts and mining engineers during the settlement talks. The settlement was designed to address the volatility of silver prices and the cyclical nature of the mining industry, they said. Silver is trading at near-record prices of $42 per ounce and Hecla is profitable, but there’s no guarantee that silver prices will remain high, attorneys said.
Lodge said the settlement is based on Hecla’s ability to pay, instead of full liability. Earlier court rulings determined that the company is responsible for 31 percent of the mine tailings that were dumped into the Coeur d’Alene River Basin before pollution controls took effect. An estimated $2 billion worth of cleanup work remains.
However, “it makes no sense to put a company out of business and receive no money toward cleanup,” Lodge said.