EPA to ASARCO: Time to pay

  For the past two years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been investigating ASARCO Inc. for violations of federal environmental laws. Now the mining company is going to pay. On Jan. 23, the EPA announced that the company will pay $62 million in fines and cleanup costs for its projects around the nation, with the bulk of the money going to a copper mine in Ray, Ariz., and a lead smelter in East Helena, Mont.

In Arizona, ASARCO has agreed to spend $55 million on a tunnel to reroute Mineral Creek, a tributary of the Gila River that now flows through the Ray mine site. In Montana, where ASARCO's smelter has been emitting heavy metals like mercury and arsenic, the company will pay $300,000 for a system to monitor raw materials as they enter the plant. Between the two sites, ASARCO will pay an additional $8.4 million (part to the national treasury and part to the state) in penalties for illegal water and soil pollution. As part of the agreement, ASARCO will also develop a nationwide employee training system to improve compliance with environmental regulations.

Duane Yontorno of ASARCO's Tucson office says the company had a number of "outstanding issues' at projects across the country, so they wanted to cover all the violations in one settlement. This was a departure from the EPA's usual case-by-case approach, agrees Susan Zazzali, who is with the EPA's office in Helena, Mont. But she believes the settlement will deter ASARCO from future violations.

"The penalty isn't that big," she says, "but the work they're required to do is very costly. I think it's a good step." And, she adds, "We'll be keeping a very close eye on them."

Aimee Boulanger of the Mineral Policy Center doesn't think the settlement will have any effect on ASARCO's practices. "We've got $60 million but a place that's utterly destroyed," she says of the Ray, Ariz., mine site. "And this will continue - as long as (ASARCO) sees that what they save with these practices is greater than what they might pay in fines."

*Michelle Nijhuis

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