Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Asarco Tries Catching an Environmental Break

By Duane Craig

Perhaps it is time for Asarco to catch a break on the environmental front and its latest action of filing a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency for lying under oath about lead contamination in Omaha might just do that.

According to this recent Bloomberg Businessweek report, the company is maintaining that while the EPA had evidence from Union Pacific that lead paint on housing was the contamination culprit, it swore it did not in a federal court. Asarco had to pay $200 million to settle without admitting wrongdoing, but when it found an email of an EPA supervisor encouraging employees to delete other emails to avoid being subpoenaed it decided to go after the EPA.

The company has a long and tired history when it comes to the environment. A large portion of that history came home to roost on December 10, 2009, when Asarco was involved in the largest superfund settlement in the history of the program, handing over $1.7 billion in funds to cleanup contaminated sites in EPA’s region 10, including the Coeur d’Alene River floodplain.

From 1899 until it emerged from bankruptcy and was reintegrated with Grupo Mexico in 2009, Asarco mined the U.S. and other countries for metal ores and processed those ores into metals. In 2006 the company closed the last property that was integral to the original Guggenheim family’s wealth platform. That family had originally merged its copper and lead operations with Asarco in 1901. Today, the company continues operations as Asarco Grupo Mexico, mining and processing various metals including copper, selenium, nickel and even gold.

But, over the years all those operations without the right pollution controls put arsenic, cadmium, lead and sulphur dioxide into the air and eventually placed the company’s name on 19 Superfund sites across the nation, according to this Sierra Club article. One of the more notoriously-known operations was in El Paso, Texas where the contaminants made their home in the soils. One resident had dust in his attic tested and found it contained 30 times more arsenic than the safe limit. Lead also became a serious problem in the soils and children. Recently the city council met resistance from some citizens for granting tax rebates to a developer that will build a Smart Growth development on land it bought from Asarco in 2005. One resident claimed the land was too contaminated with arsenic and that people would develop illnesses from exposure to the toxins.

The council, however, maintained the developer would have to follow all the necessary environmental procedures and that would guarantee the development wouldn’t have contamination lurking to become an issue in the future.

At various times Asarco had mining operations and plants in Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Arizona, Peru, Tennessee and Montana. Today, Asarco Grupo Mexico makes refined copper cathode, rod, cake, silver bars, gold bars, crude nickel sulfate, selenium, tellurium, platinum-sponge, palladium-sponge and Enviroalloy™ in Amarillo, Texas. In Hayden, Arizona it has a copper concentrator and smelting operation; in Sahuarita, Arizona it mines copper and silver; in Kearny, Arizona it mines for and produces cathode copper; and at the mine at Marana, Arizona it uses dump leaching and rubblization processes to make high purity copper cathodes.

Asarco may stand to gain back the $200 million it paid as a settlement in the Omaha lead contamination Superfund site, but the Union Pacific railroad is only in it for $25 million. That means if the total bill is expected to be $400 million, the loss of Asarco’s portion could be significant to cleanup efforts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Why should Asarco "catch a break" when the EPA and Federal Dept. of Justice knew since 1998 that Asarco was operating an unpermitted illegal multi-state hazardous-waste disposal operation for profit (see 10/2006 NYTIMES article), and the Asarco Bankruptcy DOJ-Trustee let Asarco "off the hook" for 100% of the liability from that illegal waste and its contamination?? To this day, no one in the government will publicly hold Asarco responsible for any of the liability from that illegal toxic wastes. MASSIVE amounts of god knows what were disposed of illegally to make profit according to that formerly secret 1998 DOJ EPA Asarco settlement document. How many other such secret settlement documents are out there?