Idaho U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge on Thursday approved a legal settlement agreement resolving one of the longest running and most complex lawsuits involving legal liabilities for environmental damage ever filed under the federal Superfund statute.
Under the settlement, Hecla Mining Company will pay $263.4 million plus interest to the United States government, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and the state of Idaho to resolve human health and environmental claims resulting from the release of wastes from Hecla’s past mining operations throughout the Bunker Hill Mining and Metallurgical Superfund site in the Coeur d’Alene River basin in northern Idaho.
Settlement funds will be dedicated to cleaning up the environment and restoring natural resources in the Basin, which will benefit local communities by protecting human health, improving water quality and providing jobs during the cleanup and restoration and ultimately, by enhancing fisheries and wildlife habitat in a region that attracts thousands of hunters and fishermen each year.
The court in 2003 determined mining companies ASARCO and Hecla were liable under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, the Clean Water Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act for a majority (combined 53 percent) of the natural resource damage in the Coeur d’Alene River basin resulting from decades of silver mining. The remaining tasks were to determine the amount of the damages.
The claims against ASARCO were dismissed as a result of the settlement in September of 2010.
The tribe filed the first CERCLA action in 1991 and it was consolidated when the United States filed its CERCLA complaint in 1996 seeking recovery for clean-up costs from certain mining companies who had owned, operated, generated or transported hazardous waste in the Coeur d’Alene Basin since the 1800s.
In 1983, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency listed a 21-square mile mining area in northern Idaho as a Superfund site under CERCLA. EPA extended those boundaries in 1998 to include areas throughout the 1,500-square mile area of the Coeur d'Alene River basin project area. Under Superfund, EPA has developed a plan to clean up the contaminated area.
The Bunker Hill Superfund site is one of the largest and most contaminated sites in the nation. At one time, the Upper Basin, or Silver Valley, was one of the largest silver-producing districts in the world. As a result of past mining practices, the basin has been contaminated with heavy metals such as lead, zinc and arsenic.
The EPA began cleanup at the site in the 1980s, focusing on protecting human health.
Although many public and environmental health improvements have been achieved, widespread contamination continues to pose significant risks to human health and the environment in both the Upper Basin and Lower Basin, and cleanup work will likely continue for many years, according to a joint press release issued by tribe and involved state and federal agencies.
Chief J. Allan, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, said the tribe is pleased that two decades of litigation have finally come to an end.
“The tribe knew the decision to bring this Superfund lawsuit would be unpopular, but believed it was necessary to clean up the Coeur d'Alene basin and bring meaningful changes in the way we protect our natural environment," Allan said. "With the signing of this historic agreement, the tribe looks forward to being a partner in the ongoing cleanup efforts.
“The resources made available from this settlement will provide critical funding for restoration projects throughout the basin and bring economic benefits to the entire region," Allan said.
Likewise Hecla officials said they were pleased with the judge’s acceptance of the settlement or “consent decree,” which resolves claims of the federal government, tribe and state against Hecla Limited for historic environmental liability in the Coeur d'Alene basin Superfund site.
"We are very pleased with the court's approval of the settlement, and support by all the parties in resolving this protracted litigation," said Hecla's president and chief executive officer, Phillips S. Baker, Jr. "As one of the largest private employers in North Idaho, we look forward to working in concert with our various stakeholders for a prosperous Silver Valley. With the litigation behind us, we can now focus on a new chapter and the opportunities ahead."
A press release issued by the company said it has sufficient cash on hand to fulfill the settlement obligations, meet all capital, pre-development, and exploration requirements for 2011; and adequate funding to pursue other value generating initiatives for its shareholders.
Of the total settlement, about $65.9 million will go to the natural resource trustees for natural resource restoration. The natural resource trustees are the Department of the Interior, represented by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management; the U.S. Department of Agriculture, represented by the U.S. Forest Service; the tribe; and the state, represented by the department of Fish and Game and Environmental Quality.
About $197.5 million will be used by the EPA and the IDEQ for cleanup of contamination at the Superfund site, which spans Shoshone, Kootenai and Benewah counties.
Coupled with the settlement with ASARCO, a total of about $140 million is available for natural resource restoration in the Coeur d’Alene River basin, in addition to $691.5 million for cleanup.
The natural resource restoration planning and implementation will be coordinated with the EPA’s cleanup plans and actions. Natural resource restoration actions are in addition to cleanup actions at Superfund sites and include habitat improvements for birds, wildlife and fish. The cleanup and restoration activities will likely span decades.
“We are grateful to those who labored through years of litigation and negotiations that brought us to this important milestone toward the cleanup and restoration so critically needed in this beautiful area of Idaho,” said Robyn Thorson, director of the USFWS’s Pacific Region. The federal agency is the lead federal trustee. “Future generations will benefit from their work.”
“This settlement means cleanup, restoration and mining can move forward together in the Silver Valley,” said Dennis McLerran, EPA regional administrator in Seattle. “Today's agreement not only provides more money for cleanup, but helps lay the foundation for a stronger future: one built on mining stewardship, a healthier environment and a growing, vibrant economy.”
Chip Corsi, supervisor for the IDFG’s Panhandle Region, and IDEQ Regional Administrator Dan Redline issued a joint statement, stating: “This latest chapter in the history of the Silver Valley and surrounding area presents exceptional opportunities to benefit the fish, wildlife, environment and people of the Coeur d’Alene Basin.”
Acting Idaho Panhandle National Forests Supervisor Maggie Pittman and BLM District Manager Gary Cooper also issued a joint statement, saying, “We are very happy to be part of this final settlement. We stand ready to continue our work as land managers to restore the local environment and improve the quality of the landscape throughout the Silver Valley and Coeur d'Alene Basin.”
The natural resource trustees’ first step will be to develop a comprehensive plan and Environmental Impact Statement to guide restoration of injured natural resources in the Basin. As they develop the plan, the Trustees will seek and incorporate citizen input.
The trustees will conduct public scoping and then draft restoration alternatives that will propose priority locations and types of actions needed and may also include some specific actions. Following analysis and public comment, a final restoration plan and EIS will be developed, most likely in two to three years.
Settlement funds recovered by the natural resource trustees will be used to restore, replace or acquire the equivalent natural resources injured by mining. The resources and services that have been affected include fish, birds and wildlife, clean water, riparian vegetation, soil and sediment, and recreation opportunities.