The federal government has accused 23 more companies of mining pollution in the Coeur d’Alene Basin.
The U.S. Department of Justice on Friday added defendants to its lawsuit aimed at companies whose operations damaged the environment.
“This will help us achieve a more complete cleanup in the basin,” said Cliff Villa, an attorney with the federal Environmental Protection Agency. “It will make it more complex in the near term since we’ll have more than quadrupled the responsible parties.”
Late Friday, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe filed a request with the court to add 13 more defendants to its parallel lawsuit over natural resource damages in the basin.
A spokeswoman for mining companies named in the two lawsuits questioned the wisdom of dragging in more parties.
“It’s getting big and out of control,” said Holly Houston of the Coeur d’Alene Basin Mining Information Office. “I see it more as dragging out the lawsuit, instead of settling and getting the issue resolved.”
The latest move in the multimillion dollar suits was not a complete surprise to the companies named.
In June, the EPA sent letters to 70 firms with ties to mining in the Silver Valley, ordering them to turn over documents dating to 1880 within two weeks. The Justice Department was up against a Friday deadline to add more names to the lawsuit.
The demand angered Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, who called it a fishing expedition for federal lawyers, prompting an apology from the EPA.
The new defendants in the lawsuit were chosen based on whether they had contributed to the contamination in the basin, or whether they had purchased a company that was involved in the pollution, Villa said.
“There were a number of big companies that were released,” Villa said. “A number of small ones we named did do work and contamination in the basin.”
Another criterion for being named in the suit was whether the company had any assets that could be used to contribute to cleanup.
Several companies had already expressed an interest in settling out of court, Villa said.
“Part of the settlement would be to do work to clean up their own mess,” Villa said. “There might be contribution for the overall basin cleanup, since those metals did move down through the system.”
One company interested in settling is Zanetti Brothers Inc. The owner of the sand and gravel company in Osburn, William Zanetti, was also the only individual named in the suit because of his involvement in a business partnership that disbanded 20 years ago, said his attorney Mike Branstetter.
“My client is 88 years old,” Branstetter said. “He’s a lifelong resident of Shoshone County. I’m real disappointed they’re going after the grandpas in the community.”
Branstetter said he’s contacted the Justice Department to indicate a willingness to settle, but the agency wasn’t ready to talk.
“We don’t want to be involved in long, protracted litigation,” Branstetter said.
In those cases where a responsible party cannot be identified for cleanup, the federal government will likely turn to Superfund money to pay for the work, Villa said.
But the government claims the damage is so extensive it cannot be repaired without the assistance of the parties named in the suit.
While no dollar figures are specified in the complaint, federal and tribal officials have estimated the cost to clean up the more than 1,500 square miles in the basin to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
“We need these companies to pay their fair share,” said Lois Schiffer, assistant attorney general with the U.S. Justice Department. “A partial solution will still leave tons of dangerous sediments in the river basin.”
The federal suit originally named ASARCO Inc., Hecla Mining and Smelting Inc., Sunshine Mining Company Inc., Coeur d’Alene Mines Corp. and their affiliates.
The newly named defendants are Alice Consolidated Mines Inc., Atlantic Richfield Co., Blackhawk Mining and Development Co., Burlington Northern and Sante Fe Railway Co., Callahan Consolidated Mines Inc., Constitution Mining Co., Douglas Mining Co., Golconda Mining Corp., Green Hill Cleveland Mining Co., Group R Co. Inc., Highland Surprise Consolidated Mining Co., Hypotheek Mining and Milling Co., Lookout Mountain Mining and Milling Co., Mascot Silver-Lead Mines Inc., Nabob Silver-Lead Co., Philipp Brothers Inc., Sidney Mining CO., Silver Bowl Inc., Silver Mountain Lead Mines, Union Pacific Railroad Co. Inc., Zanetti Brothers Inc. and William Zanetti.
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