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Sunday, August 25, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Asarco may dodge cleanup bill for hazardous waste

Seattle Times staff reporter

During a century of extracting a fortune in lead, zinc and copper, mining giant Asarco left a toxic legacy that government regulators say stretches across at least 25 communities in a dozen states.

The trail of hazardous waste winds through thousands of Puget Sound yards polluted with heavy metals, stretches into Missouri farm country so contaminated that residents drank bottled water for a decade, and rolls through the New Mexico hills, where miniature horses keeled over in their stalls after eating lead-laced hay.

Today, Asarco is broke, deep in debt and trying to scrape together cash to pay creditors.

Federal officials claim the company's corporate parent is stripping Asarco's assets in a move that could bankrupt Asarco, leaving taxpayers stuck with a cleanup tab approaching $1 billion. If Asarco disappears, the fallout could stretch from Tacoma to Spokane and from Omaha, Neb., to El Paso, Texas.

In Everett, where state officials blame an Asarco smelter that shut down in 1912 for contaminating 600 homes with lead and arsenic, cleanup could take 50 years. Since Asarco disputes its responsibility, the state, which hoped to bill the company $78 million for cleanup, is paying the tab — at the rate of a few million dollars a year.

In central Colorado, where decades of heavy-metal refining by Asarco and others once turned the Arkansas River orange and dead, trout are only now returning. But federal officials fret about who will pay to run a water-treatment plant that keeps acid mine drainage from pouring back down its banks.

In Illinois, where an Asarco zinc smelter produced lead-caked slag that residents used to build roads, responsibility for $3 million in cleanup could fall to the tiny village of Beckemeyer, population 1,043, whose annual budget is a meager $350,000.

"We're small," said village clerk Lavonne Albers. "We have one store — that's the only sales tax we collect."

All this comes as Superfund, the cleanup trust account funded by a tax on industry and set up to make polluters pay, is expected to fall next year to $28 million — its lowest point in two decades. Congress stopped collecting the tax in 1995 and has since split cleanup costs between the dwindling trust and taxpayer-supported congressional appropriations.

That means abandoned cleanup sites will have to compete for an ever-smaller pot of money — virtually none of it coming from polluters.

Funding for Northwest sites, such as in Tacoma where Asarco has spent tens of millions of dollars removing contamination from an old smelter that shut down in 1985, would be left to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)and the whims of congressional appropriations. At Bunker Hill, the North Idaho site that has polluted homes and water all the way into Spokane, the financial burden could fall to another mining company, which also is struggling financially.

"The system was designed so you could look at someone and say 'It's your mess, clean it up,' " said Miji Ryan, an Everett resident whose arsenic-tainted yard was removed by the state when Asarco refused. "But by the time you've done that, and gone through the courts, people have given up, gotten old or moved away and the money's gone. It's a depressing corporate game."

Secret maneuvering?

Asarco officials have insisted they will fulfill their cleanup obligations.

"The government may suspect that the company is trying to maneuver secretly to take the value out of Asarco and leave it hanging. We completely dispute that contention," said Asarco spokesman Clay Allen.

"We're trying to work through this. We're trying to honor our commitments."

Battered by falling copper prices, Asarco told the EPA earlier this year that it could no longer meet existing cleanup deadlines.

But the U.S. Justice Department feared Asarco's parent company, Mexican mining giant Grupo Mexico, was trying to bleed Asarco of its profitable investments.

In an unprecedented move, Justice Department attorneys sued earlier this month to stop Asarco from selling off its most profitable remaining holding, a mining company in the southern Andes of Peru, to a Grupo Mexico subsidiary.

Government attorneys contend the sale "could lead to Asarco's failure and will certainly guarantee Asarco's inability to fully perform its environmental remediation obligations, risking continued human and environmental exposure to the impacts of hazardous substances," they wrote in their filing in U.S. District Court in Tacoma.

Allen, with Asarco, said the sale was precisely what the company needed to stay afloat.

"In exchange for what we would be selling, we would be getting in return exactly what we need in terms of debt relief and operating cash," he said.

The company has agreed to hold off on the sale while the battle plays out in court.

But incidents of contamination that government agencies attribute to Asarco continue to mount.

This year, state officials determined lead and arsenic mildly contaminated another 300-square-mile swath of Pierce, King, Thurston and Kitsap counties. They believe the pollution stems from the Tacoma smelter.

Proud of its smelter

A century ago, Asarco blazed across rural America, extracting and refining metals with the backing of such financiers as Rockefeller and Guggenheim.

In Everett, the public library still proudly displays a mural showing the company's signature smelter — even though it ceased operation 90 years ago.

But Asarco's mining operations leached heavy metals — lead, arsenic, cadmium, zinc — into rivers and ground water, dumped waste directly onto the ground and spewed contaminated dust into the air.

Asarco and another company have supplied well-owners of Jasper County, Mo., with bottled water since 1993. Outside an old Asarco mill near Las Cruces, N.M., a child had blood-lead levels high enough to need therapy, and seven horses were poisoned when lead in sand got mixed with their hay.

In El Paso, the EPA this summer issued an emergency order, claiming there was "imminent and substantial endangerment" from an Asarco smelter that released nearly 28 million tons of arsenic per year into the air until 1990.

"There's big concern," said El Paso resident Andy Conroy. "We don't have enough information yet, and we'd really like to get something that says Asarco will pay if they find something."

Many of these problems pose environmental and health risks understood only in the past quarter-century — often well after Asarco had ceased operations. Asarco also inherited contaminated sites when it bought other companies.

But Asarco also contests its responsibility on many sites, including El Paso.

In Omaha, for example, EPA recently designated a 20-square-mile Superfund site, after a city councilman began investigating why children had high lead levels. Contamination from an old Asarco lead refinery may be spread over 50,000 or more homes — many in poor neighborhoods. But even those most concerned acknowledge Asarco may pose only part of the problem.

"We have cases of kids actually getting sick from lead," said Omaha City Councilman Frank Brown. "But we can't say that it's Asarco. There was an old smelter, but there were battery plants and lead pipes and kids living in houses with lead paint. We just don't know."

Regulators also contend Asarco has had issues with continuing operations.

In Arizona, Asarco's Ray Mine was fined millions of dollars for violating the Clean Water Act by discharging copper into a creek. In Butte, Mont., Asarco was issued a multimillion-dollar fine after spraying arsenic-tainted water on the ground to keep down dust.

A ghost neighborhood

Above the mouth of the Snohomish River in Everett, a chain-link fence shields a polluted ghost town.

Inside, walkways cut through well-maintained yards to crumbling basements no longer attached to houses. Partial chimneys are covered in plastic. A sign warns in several languages to keep out.

In the mid-1990s, workers unearthed disturbing evidence of the smelter that operated here a century ago: a clump of white powder, no bigger than a Twinkie, that turned out to be 727,000 parts per million arsenic trioxide — more than enough to kill a child.

"It's the same kind of stuff they put in rat poison," said Dan Cargill, who manages the Everett cleanup for the state Department of Ecology.

Arsenic has been linked to more than 30 health problems and increased risk of kidney, liver, bladder and skin cancers. Three or four pounds of it leach out of this site per day during heavy storms.

Behind this fence, Asarco estimates up to 15,000 cubic yards of soil has arsenic concentrations exceeding 10,000 parts per million — 500 times what the state deems safe. Asarco bought the homes here, and demolished them, and the state ordered it to reduce arsenic contamination by about a third.

The company and the state still fight in court over how much to clean hundreds of less-contaminated surrounding yards.

And if Asarco goes away, the state won't likely ever get a big infusion of cash, leaving it to continue at its own pace. The job won't be done until resident Miji Ryan's grandchildren have grandkids of their own.

"It's frustrating, but I think most people are just resigned to living with it," Ryan said. "What else can we do?"

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

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