WASHINGTON — A Mexican company will pay a total of nearly $1.8 billion for environmental cleanup and restoration at 80 sites in 19 states where bankrupt copper producer Asarco mined and operated smelters, including one in Washington state.
Grupo Mexico formally regained control of Asarco on Thursday, as part of a court approved bankruptcy plan that provides $188 million for environmental damages from its Ruston, Wash., smelter and other operations.
Asarco sought bankruptcy protection in 2005 in the largest environmental bankruptcy in U.S. history.
Though Grupo Mexico had lost control of Asarco during the bankruptcy proceeding, a bankruptcy judge in Texas ruled its reorganization plan was better than a competing one.
During the bankruptcy and related-proceedings, Grupo Mexico had been accused of looting Asarco, a century-old mining and smelting company based in Tucson, Ariz., and then forcing it into bankruptcy to avoid paying what were initially estimated at $6 billion in environmental claims.
Despite its bankruptcy, Asarco's finances had dramatically improved as its U.S. mines continued to operate. As the price of copper soared, the company earned more than $1 billion.
"Today's announcement marks the end of a long bankruptcy process that threatened to allow corporate polluters to exploit bankruptcy proceedings and avoid environmental cleanup responsibilities," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. Cantwell has proposed tougher laws aimed at preventing companies from using bankruptcy to shed cleanup costs.
Asarco operated a smelter in Ruston for more than 100 years before shutting it down in 1985. But during its operation, a plume of arsenic and other heavy metals emitted from its 562-foot smokestack settled over 1,000 square miles in Pierce, Thurston and King counties.
Though the smelter has been torn down and much of the site cleaned up, the remaining fallout from the plume still needs to be cleaned up. The state had originally filed $600 million in claims with the bankruptcy court for environmental damages from the Ruston smelter and other Asarco operations in Washington. The original claims were whittled down during negotiations.
"The outcome of this case means Asarco is being held responsible for the damages its past practices caused to our communities and our environment," said Ted Sturdevant, director of the Washington state Department of Ecology.
Grupo Mexico officials said Thursday represented the "beginning of a new chapter" for Asarco.
Justice Department, Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency officials praised the outcome. Many of the sites were federal Superfund sites and taxpayers could have been responsible for their ultimate cleanup.
In addition to Washington, the sites were in Arizona, Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah.
"Were it not for this agreement, these injured resources would remain impaired for future generations or require tax payer expenditure to achieve environmental restoration," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.