WASHINGTON — As part of its effort to emerge from bankruptcy, Asarco has now agreed to pay $200 million to clean up toxic contamination from its operations in Washington state, including its former smelter in Ruston.
Slightly more than half of that amount, $122.6 million, will go to the state and the federal Environmental Protection Agency for work in neighborhoods around the smelter site and in Pierce, King and Thurston counties, where fallout from a plume of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals from the smelter settled on 1,000 square miles.
The rest will cover cleanup at B&L Woodwaste in Milton, where slag from the smelter was dumped, at four Asarco mine sites and at a smaller smelter site in Everett the company once operated.
While a general outline of Asarco's proposals to meet its environmental obligations in Washington state was previously known, the company's plan to reorganize and emerge from bankruptcy filed in a Texas bankruptcy court in late July provides additional details.
Overall, the century-old mining and smelting company plans to pay off its major, secured creditors and provide nearly $2.4 billion to settle roughly $9 billion in environmental and asbestos-related claims.
The bankruptcy is considered the largest environmental-related and one of the most complicated bankruptcies ever, involving dozens of sites nationwide, including 20 federal Superfund sites, and 95,000 asbestos-related claims.
Asarco's estranged parent company, Grupo Mexico S.A. de C.V., is expected to submit a separate reorganization plan for the company in the coming weeks. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Richard Schmidt in Corpus Christi, Texas, has scheduled a hearing on the competing reorganization plans in mid-November and could issue a ruling early next year. The company's creditors also need to approve the plan.
But even as the bankruptcy case nears an end, another case in another Texas courtroom could have a major impact on the financial bottom line. A federal judge in Brownsville could decide in the next week or so whether Grupo Mexico stripped off Asarco's most valuable assets -- two copper mines in Peru -- in a move that made Asarco's bankruptcy inevitable.
Grupo Mexico lost control of Asarco in 2005 when Asarco sought bankruptcy protection and Schmidt appointed a three-member independent board to run the company. Asarco is seeking $10 billion from Grupo Mexico for the "fraudulent conveyance" of the mines to another of Grupo Mexico's subsidiaries.
If Asarco is successful, it could provide additional money to pay environmental and asbestos claims, including about $11 million more for Washington state.
Washington state officials said they were more than satisfied with Asarco's reorganization plan.
"We think it is very reasonable," said Elliott Furst, a senior council on the ecology division of the Washington state attorney general's office.
The state initially filed $600 million in claims with the bankruptcy court, including about $300 million related to the Ruston smelter. Asarco operated the smelter for 100 or so years before it was shut down in 1985. The smelter, along with its 562-foot smokestack, has been torn down, and part of the site is being developed.
Furst said the state's initial claim was really a "rough estimate." Prior to a court hearing last fall, the Ruston smelter claim was trimmed to $112 million and the final figure then negotiated with Asarco. The state would receive $80.6 million to clean up the plume and $15.3 million for natural resource damages. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will receive $27 million for the Ruston cleanup.
Neither the state nor the EPA have decided exactly what the money will be spent on.
More than a dozen states, along with the EPA, other federal agencies and several Indian tribes originally filed more than $11 billion worth of environmental claims. Washington's claim was the second largest filed by any state, behind only Oklahoma. The claims were then whittled down to about $6.5 billion before negotiations began.
Asarco plans to raise $2.6 billion by selling its Arizona mining and smelting facilities to Sterlite Industries, a major metals company from India. Asarco also has $1 billion in the bank as the price of copper has tripled since the company filed for bankruptcy.
"While we still need court approval of our plan, we believe the end of this complex bankruptcy is finally in sight," said Asarco Chief Executive Officer Joseph Lapinsky. "This plan will allow the company to emerge from bankruptcy in a manner that is fair to all of its constituencies and puts Asarco's assets under ownership of a world-class global mining company."
In the Brownsville case, Asarco alleged Grupo bought its majority interest in the Peruvian mines for $765 million when they were worth at least $1 billion. The mines are now thought to be worth between $7 billion and $8 billion, and Asarco has said that with interest and other considerations the total it is seeking is about $10 billion.
Among those testifying during the trial in the case earlier this year was German Larrea, whose family, one of the richest in Mexico, controls Grupo Mexico.
"This case continues to be the biggest wildcard in the bankruptcy and we have asked for an extraordinary result," said Irv Terrell, a Houston lawyer representing Asarco in the Peruvian mines case.