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Asarco's unlikely boon to the environment

State and federal officials were, at one point, looking at almost a complete loss of support from Asarco for projects to clean up contaminated sites. Then, a dramatic recovery of copper prices lead to benefits for Tacoma, Everett, and elsewhere in the state.
A historic photo of Ruston, home of the Asarco smelter and its looming tower.

A historic photo of Ruston, home of the Asarco smelter and its looming tower. EPA

The Asarco smelter is part of the larger EPA Superfund cleanup for Tacoma's Commencement Bay

The Asarco smelter is part of the larger EPA Superfund cleanup for Tacoma's Commencement Bay Photo courtesy of EPA

When Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna took office in 2005, things looked anything but bright for the state in its dealings with Asarco, which had operated the old Tacoma smelter and other mines and smelters around the West. The company, which faced environmental liabilities worth billions, had just filed for bankruptcy. "I was told that we could expect a few pennies on the dollar, or nothing," McKenna says.

As Kevin Rochlin of the EPA puts it, "We were all looking at what happens when Asarco goes under."

Asarco's cupboard looked bare. But there turned out to be a silver — make that a copper — lining. "Lo and behold," McKenna says, "copper prices shot up." Asarco was worth a bundle again.

Washington, other states, and federal agencies all negotiated separately with the company, the bankruptcy court in Corpus Christi Texas said OK, and shortly before the end of last year, a federal district judge approved the biggest environmental bankruptcy settlement in U.S. history: $1.79 billion. "This is literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Rochlin says. "We are all pinching ourselves."

According to the EPA, the Asarco settlement dwarfs any previous Superfund bankruptcy. The runner-up is the W.R. Grace company's settlement of $284 million, $250 million of it to clean up after decades of mining and processing asbestos-contaminated vermiculite in Libby, Montana.

Asarco funds have gone to 19 states, primarily in the West, but also including Nebraska and New Jersey. The largest single chunk, $435 million, will help clean up the Coeur d'Alene basin of Idaho and eastern Washington, where wastes from more than a century of mining and refining are spread over 1,500 square miles — one of the nation's more scenic Superfund sites. They drain into picturesque Lake Coeur d'Alene, from which the Spokane River takes them downstream into Washington. The river is still contaminated with heavy metals.

(The most notorious single pollution source in the Coeur d'Alene basin was the lead smelter at Kellogg, Idaho. Asarco wound up holding that particular bag. "Mining companies operated the Bunker Hill lead smelter in Kellogg from 1917 to 1982 leaving a legacy of lead contamination that residents long chose to deny and that the state was slow to address," Idaho journalist Rocky Barker has written. “The worst moment in this long history was in 1973 when fire burned part of the company’s emissions control unit and the company continued operations even as emissions of lead tripled. . . . The company kept the plant open through 1974 as it repaired the unit. Lead levels rose 4 times in the surrounding area. The area was finally designated a Superfund site after the mine closed in 1982 over the objections of residents.”)

As a result of the company's turnaround, Washington has gotten some $188 million, including $111 million to deal with arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals deposited in the soil for nearly 100 years by the smoke plume from the Tacoma smelter — which shut down just 25 years ago. Another $44.7 million will go to clean up hundreds of residential properties around the site of a north Everett smelter that had operated from 1896 to 1912. An additional $22 million will be spent at the B&L Woodwaste site in Pierce County, which houses contaminated wood from old log sorting yards on the Tacoma tideflats, and arsenic-laden slag used to create road beds through the yards. And $10.8 million will be used to clean up Monte Cristo and other old mining sites in northwest and eastern Washington.

The B&L site has already been capped, but arsenic has leached out toward groundwater. The contaminated wood and slag have since been separated from groundwater by a 30-foot-deep bentonite clay slurry wall. A treatment system will remove water from the site before it can seep into Hylobos Creek. Next year, a system of wells will be used to pump and treat contaminated groundwater inside the site.


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