Gregoire: $164 million Asarco collection near

Washington state has cleared a major hurdle in its efforts to collect nearly $164 million to help repair environmental damage caused by bankrupt mining giant Asarco, the Department of Ecology recently announced.

On June 5, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Richard S. Schmidt of Texas approved settlements for past and future cleanup costs and natural resources damages at various Washington sites contaminated by Asarco’s past practices. The state’s settlements are now considered “allowed claims” approved by the bankruptcy court, which moves the state closer to collecting the money it’s seeking.

“This is a fair settlement that ensures our natural resources are restored, while protecting our taxpayers,” said Gov. Chris Gregoire. “The people of Washington didn’t create this mess, and I’m pleased a judge agrees that they shouldn’t be responsible for cleaning it up.”

Attorney General Rob McKenna said, “Asarco’s operations spread arsenic, lead and other hazardous substances over hundreds of square miles. It has cost millions to repair the resulting environmental damage, over several decades. This ruling affirms that those who caused this damage are responsible for paying to clean it up.”

Ecology Director Jay Manning said, “These funds are essential for our work to repair the damages caused to our communities and environment. We will put this money to good use quickly. We have cleanup plans for these sites, and we’re ready to go.”

Asarco operated smelters in Tacoma and Everett. Air pollution from the Tacoma smelter settled on the surface soil over a vast region — more than 1,000 square miles of the Puget Sound basin. Elevated levels of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals polluted soil and groundwater around the region. In addition, arsenic-tainted slag from the Tacoma smelter was dumped in the B&L Woodwaste landfill in Pierce County.

In 2005, Asarco filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in Texas. In July 2006, the Washington Attorney General’s Office filed a series of claims for past and future costs and natural resource damages.

Ultimately, Washington reached settlements for each of the state’s claims:

— $38 million for the Everett Smelter Site;

— $9 million for several old mining sites in northwest and eastern Washington;

— $14 million for past oversight and natural resource damage claims for the Tacoma Smelter Plume;

— $80.4 million for future costs of the Tacoma Smelter Plume site.

In addition, the state will receive $22 million from another claimant, which has agreed to turn over the money for use in cleaning up the B&L Woodwaste Site in Pierce County.

Last month, Schmidt heard testimony on Washington’s proposed settlements and all other environmental claims against Asarco. His Friday ruling rejects the parent company’s challenges to all environmental settlements.

The next step toward payment of the claims will be the court’s consideration of proposed reorganization plans. That is scheduled to take place in August. Several reorganization plans have been put before the court. Each offers a different approach to future use of Asarco assets and payment of Asarco creditors, including payment of the “allowed claims” for the environmental site costs.