Announced Monday and likely to be approved by a federal court in the next month or two, Hecla Mining and the U.S. EPA have settled longstanding Superfund litigation. The settlement establishes Hecla’s contribution toward the costs of the Coeur d’Alene basin minewaste cleanup. According to news reports, Hecla has agreed to pay some $263 million toward the cleanup which is estimated to ultimately cost more than $2 billion.
Although the accounting and apportionment of the funds will be complex, Hecla’s settlement will essentially be added to previous settlements – particularly the ASARCO settlement for some $452 million announced last year – to fund the bulk of the outstanding cleanup effort from this point forward.
With each flood season, historic mine wastes continue to contaminate some 160 miles of shoreline and riverbank in the Coeur d’Alene basin with heavy metal pollution. As a result, the basin constitutes one of the largest and most expensive Superfund cleanups in the U.S. The metals, which are at levels above federal health-based cleanup standards, are a danger to both humans who live and play in the region, as well as fish and wildlife that live there. For example, annually, some 150 tundra swans die from lead poisoning related causes during their migration stopover.
Prior to this settlement, Hecla had been a fierce opponent to EPA’s plans for a comprehensive cleanup plan for the upper Coeur d’Alene basin. Those plans, rolled out to the public last summer, are expected to be finalized soon. Now that Hecla has settled its obligations to the cleanup, and has reportedly achieved some level of protection for its ongoing mining operations, its vocal opposition to the cleanup should quiet.
Indeed, with the litigation largely resolved, the financing largely settled, and with the cleanup plans for the upper basin to be approved soon, the Coeur d’Alene basin cleanup may be entering a new era. Collaboration and cooperation should be much more prevalent as the cleanup continues from the upper reaches of the Coeur d’Alene basin down to the Coeur d’Alene Lake.
In fact, planning for the lower basin cleanup is just now getting underway. Along those lines, a more formal collaborative effort is in the early stages of being formed to engage stakeholders in designing the lower basin cleanup work. The cleanup of the waterways and shorelines between Cataldo and Harrison will be complex and expensive. Indeed, some approaches could still be quite controversial. However, without the specter of ongoing litigation, the cleanup should proceed less acrimoniously. We certainly look forward to getting on with it.