Mining companies slapped with half the bill for Superfund mess

  Environmentalists, Coeur d’Alene Tribe members and government attorneys are doing victory jigs over a federal court ruling regarding a north Idaho Superfund site. Even the mining companies seem fairly pleased with the outcome this time.

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe and the federal government have wrangled in court with two mining companies for over a decade, arguing that Hecla and Asarco are responsible for pollution seeping from 64 million tons of mine tailings in the Silver Valley. In September, Judge Edward Lodge ruled that the companies are liable for cleanup costs, as well as “natural resources damage.”

Companies deemed responsible for pollution under Superfund law typically pay only for Environmental Protection Agency “response costs,” which deal with issues that directly affect human health. Lodge’s ruling that the mining companies caused damage to natural resources — specifically water, soils, fish, tundra swans and vegetation — is significant because it means the companies are financially responsible, not just for human health, but also for restoring the landscape, water and wildlife.

But according to Hecla representative Vicki Veltkamp, “Lodge ruled that overall natural resources damage is far less serious than had been portrayed (by the EPA and the tribe).” Lodge also decided that the two companies contributed to only 53 percent of the total tailings (the remaining 47 percent came from other mining operations) and therefore are responsible for a little more than half of the estimated $1.3 billion in damages.

In May, Lodge will put a final price tag on damages. The remaining cleanup costs will be covered by federal tax dollars and the state of Idaho.