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Originally published December 11, 2009 at 12:07 AM | Page modified December 11, 2009 at 1:31 AM

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Asarco to pay $1.8B for cleanup

Mining giant Asarco has agreed to pay $1.8 billion to clean up more than 80 toxic sites in 19 states as part of the largest environmental-bankruptcy settlement in U.S. history.

Seattle Times environment reporter

Mining giant Asarco has agreed to pay $1.8 billion to clean up more than 80 toxic sites in 19 states as part of the largest environmental bankruptcy settlement in U.S. history.

Nearly half that money — $810 million — will come to the Pacific Northwest to help pay for environmental restoration already underway outside Tacoma, Everett and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Roughly $188 million went to the state of Washington, which will mostly cover soil sampling and cleanup around schools, day cares, parks and homes in Pierce and South King counties. That area was contaminated by a century of lead and arsenic from a smelter outside Tacoma.

The agreement brings to a close one of the country's longest and most expensive environmental battles and assures that taxpayers won't be on the hook to pay for Asarco's poisonous legacy.

"With this settlement we are in a much stronger position to assure that people's children and grandchildren have a cleaner place to play and grow up," said Dan Opalski, deputy administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the Northwest.

For more than a century, Asarco and its predecessors, backed by financiers like the Rockefellers and the Guggenheims, extracted lead, arsenic, zinc and copper from sites around the country, operating smelters near Tacoma and Everett and mines. The company spewed polluted dust into the air, dumped mine tailings into rivers and left a trail of hazardous waste that leached into farms and ranches.

The company's toxic stew poisoned children with lead in northern Idaho and Omaha, Neb., and with arsenic in El Paso, Texas, killed horses in New Mexico and so thoroughly contaminated drinking water in Missouri that families were forced to drink bottled water for a decade.

The company struggled on and off for nearly a decade with deep debts that threatened to stick taxpayers with one of the largest cleanup tabs in the nation's history. The Justice Department in 2002 even accused Asarco's parent company, Grupo Mexico, of trying to strip the company of all its assets to avoid paying its environmental bills.

But, aided by rising copper prices and a complicated five-year bankruptcy reorganization, the Arizona-based company, Grupo Mexico and the Justice Department reached a settlement that covers 100 percent of its environmental liability, plus interest.

In Washington, tens of millions will cover past and ongoing work in Everett, at four mines on both sides of the Cascades, and on nearly 1,000 square miles north and west of Tacoma, where the state has a backlog of 60 day-care play areas that need to be cleaned up.

More than half the Northwest's share, about $436 million, will cover some of the cleanup in northern Idaho, where a smelter at the Bunker Hill Mine spewed so much heavy-metal contamination that it coats the bottom of Lake Coeur d'Alene and has poisoned parts of the Spokane River. But that remains a fraction of the estimated $2 billion-plus cost of ridding that region of pollution from its silver-mining heyday.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com

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