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

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.

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. 'ꀜThe worst moment in this long history was in 1973 when fire burned part of the company'ꀙs 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.'ꀝ)

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.

In Everett, the old smelter was torn down by 1915, and no one even realized there was a problem until 1990, when a private company found high levels of arsenic and lead. The state Department of Ecology, the Everett Housing Authority, and the city of Everett subsequently removed soil from the old smelter site itself — excavating as far down as 15 feet where the smelter's arsenic bins once stood and up to 4 feet deep beyond the smelter boundary — and cleaning up soil around 93 homes. Another 500 or so homes remain to be cleaned up, along with commercial areas and industrial sites along the Snohomish River.

The Tacoma smelter was included in a 12-square-mile Commencement Bay Nearshore/Tideflats Superfund site back in 1983. Since the smelter shut down, all the buildings on the site have been demolished, and topsoil has been removed from 1,500 lots in Ruston and North Tacoma. Most of the contaminated soil from Ruston, Tacoma, and Everett has been left or dumped on the old smelter site. The really nasty stuff has been hauled to hazardous waste sites in Oregon and Idaho. Soil with minor contamination goes to regular landfills. (The smelter site can't take any more contaminated soil. In the future, heavily contaminated dirt dug from the surrounding area will be hauled to a hazardous waste site in eastern Washington.) Money for this has come from an earlier legal settlement between Asarco and the EPA. Money used recently to clean up residential lots has come from the Obama stimulus package.

Stimulus money should get the rest of the lots cleaned up within the EPA's baliwick, close to the old smokestack. The agency will use some of its settlement money to work out what happens next; it needs a long-term program to clean up soil that is exposed over the years as people rip up pavement, rip out decks, and the like.

The EPA must also figure out how to deal with the peninsula of contaminated slag on which the smelter once rested and the Tacoma Yacht Club still does, and must dredge contaminated sediment from the yacht club basin. Rochlin explains that one would normally reduce the angle of the peninsula's edge to 45 degrees, so that one could armor it with large rocks, forming a barrier between the slag and the water of Commencement Bay. But that can't be done without displacing the yacht club, so the EPA will have to come up with Plan B.

Everyone knows what's in the soil and the slag. The only big unknown, Rochlin says, is how much getting rid of it all will cost. The cost will depend on the amount of stuff that must be removed, and that won't be clear until someone starts digging.

The EPA is in charge of cleanup within a one-mile radius of the old stack. The state is responsible for the rest of the 300-square-mile plume area.

Washington already has its settlement money in hand. Some will pay for cleanup that has already been done. Most will pay future. costs Of course, no one really knows what all those costs will be, but the state hired environmental engineers and economists to come up with an educated guess.

Ecology expects to use settlement money to pay for sampling and cleanup of residential properties and child-play areas beyond the one-mile radius in Ruston, on Vashon Island, and in north and west Tacoma. No one knows whether or not the smelter residue has actually affected children or adults in the old plume area. Surveys done since 1999 show that high levels of arsenic and lead are relatively rare, but concentrations above the state cleanup level are widespread. They extend beyond Vashon, Ruston and adjoining neighborhoods to University Place, Burien, and Federal Way.

Is there any real danger to kids unless they dig up the contaminated soil and eat it? Not much, perhaps, but everyone knows that kids do eat dirt. They also put toys in their mouths, eat with unwashed hands, breath in dust. Contaminated soil covered by sod or chips isn't a problem, but the soil can be exposed if the sod or chip layer is pierced, or merely wears away. When Ecology cleans up a contaminated play area, it doesn't haul away 15 or even 4 feet of soil, as it has done in and around the Everett smelter site. Rather, it takes half a foot or a foot. If the contamination goes deeper, Ecology caps the area with a barrier of geotextile fabric (aka landscaping cloth) and covers the fabric with soil or chips. The agency has sampled the soil at nearly 900 schools and childcare centers in the old plume area, and has cleaned up 77. There's still a long way to go.

McKenna says that as far as he knows, this is Washington's largest environmental settlement with a private company — so far. He suggests that the state may eventually settle with Teck Cominco, the Vancouver-based company whose Trail, B.C smelter has contaminated Lake Roosevelt with mercury and other metals, for even more money.

And of course, as McKenna points out, cleaning up nuclear waste at Hanford will cost many, many times as much: The feds spend the equivalent of the whole Asarco settlement at Hanford every year — which just may be enough to get all the high-level waste treated, half a century behind schedule, by 2090.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.