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Originally published August 11, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 11, 2005 at 10:00 AM

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Chapter 11 protection is sought by Asarco

Mining giant Asarco filed for bankruptcy protection yesterday, possibly putting into doubt the future of $1 billion in toxic cleanups across...

By Seattle Times staff and news services

TUCSON, Ariz. — Mining giant Asarco filed for bankruptcy protection yesterday, possibly putting into doubt the future of $1 billion in toxic cleanups across the country, including at former smelter sites in Tacoma and Everett.

The Arizona-based company, on the hook for a $32 million cleanup of sediments at its old aluminum and copper smelter in Tacoma at Ruston, along Commencement Bay, filed for Chapter 11 protection in federal court in Texas. The company also owes about $5 million to clean 350 to 700 residential yards in the area of the smelter.

Federal officials yesterday said it's too soon to say how the bankruptcy filing might affect Asarco's environmental responsibilities, which stretch across 25 communities in a dozen states.

"I don't know if anybody anywhere knows the answer to that yet," said Mark McIntyre, spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency.

The 107-year-old company has struggled financially for several years. It was hurt by falling copper prices in 2002. Then the company was hit with 95,000 personal-injury claims for asbestos use. Then the company faced striking workers across the Southwest after seeking wage freezes.

The company's decision to file was partially driven by environmental liabilities, said Daniel Tellechea, the company's president and chief executive officer.

The move comes two years after the Justice Department forced Asarco to set up a $100 million pollution trust fund after it accused Asarco's parent company of stripping it of assets and sticking taxpayers with its cleanup tab. That trust is guaranteed regardless of the bankruptcy.

"Right now in Tacoma we're capping a landfill, and most of that is being paid for from the trust," said Kevin Rochlin, EPA project manager. "Yard cleanups are a little less clear, because part of that comes from the company itself."

The company also is trying to sell the smelter property, which would help pay for continued cleanup.

"In Tacoma, I'm optimistic: We are probably in a better position than most of the Asarco sites, because we have that incredibly valuable property," Rochlin said. "In Everett, I'm not as optimistic."

There, the company is responsible for up to $4 million in cleanup, but "most of that has been coming not from the trust but from Asarco itself," he said.

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