Mining waste cleanup in the Coeur d'Alene Basin will receive an impressive financial boost, thanks to a settlement over one of the largest cases ever filed under the Superfund statute.
Hecla Mining Company has agreed to pay $263.4 million plus interest to the federal government, the Coeur d'Alene Tribe and the state of Idaho to resolve claims over environmental damages caused by the Coeur d'Alene company's mining waste.
This is among the 10 largest cash settlements achieved under Superfund, said Dan Opalski, Superfund director for the Environmental Protection Agency.
"We are feeling extremely good about this settlement as something that we really hope signals a new day in the Silver Valley, in terms of moving beyond a significant and ongoing phase of litigation," Opalski said after the announcement on Monday.
The settlement is the denouement of a 20-year-old lawsuit that sought damages for injuries to clean water, fish and birds, caused by millions of tons of mining waste released into the South Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River and its tributaries.
The cleanup of this damage has been the focus of Superfund work that the Environmental Protection Agency and Idaho have been involved in since the early '80s.
"In the basin we have been dealing with the intersection of some significant legacy issues, as well as the very strong interests there and the continuing of an industry that has been part of the culture," Opalski said of why the settlement took so long. "It's been a difficult conversation. I think it's really a telling accomplishment of folks on both the government side as well as on the Hecla Mining Company side to finally say 'Enough is enough. We both have priority work to do, let's get on with it.'"
Hecla spokespeople could not be reached for comment on Monday.
About 75 percent of the settlement funds will go toward the EPA and other natural-resource related agencies within the federal government.
The remaining 25 percent will be divided among the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, the state and federal natural resource trustees.
All dollars will go toward continuing cleanup efforts in the lower and upper Coeur d'Alene basins.
This new injection of dollars should ramp up efforts, said Cami Grandinetti, Coeur d'Alene Team manager, and likely lead to more cleanup-related jobs.
"How many more jobs, I don't know, but there will be more jobs," Grandinetti said.
There is still roughly $2 billion worth of cleanup that needs to be done, she said.
"The costs are significant remaining, absolutely," Grandinetti said.
The settlement will help fund more cleanup of metal-contaminated properties throughout the basin, Opalski said, which could take another two years to complete.
There will also be more focus on addressing tailings ponds that are leaching into tributaries, he said. Long-term water treatment and protecting finished cleanup work are other goals.
The EPA is still sorting through comments submitted on the proposed Upper Basin Cleanup plan, Opalski said when asked if the funds would go toward that.
"Resources here are another piece of the puzzle in providing us more ability to do more work," he said.
Don Ferguson, a Cataldo contractor who has been working on yard cleanup projects, said he is relieved to hear about the settlement.
There has been uncertainty about how long cleanup contracts will last, he said, and whether more jobs will be available.
"The federal government is subject to budgets, the same as everybody else," said Ferguson, who was working on a yard cleanup in Wallace on Monday. "At least now they have this pot of money set aside specifically for reclamation."
More cleanup projects being funded should add some security to his own budget, he added.
"As far as contracts, there will be more opportunities for me to bid on," Ferguson said.
The settlement, released in a proposed consent decree, also includes a provision for coordinating future cleanup activities with Hecla's mining operations.
"There have been ongoing discussions and debate as to how cleanup can be moved forward as we provide opportunities and space for active mining to proceed," Opalski said. "We believe the decree and its provisions help provide much more coordinating and framework for that to move forward."
The consent decree, lodged in the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho, is subject to a 30-day public comment period and approval by the federal court.
A copy can be viewed at: www.justice.gov/enrd/Consent_Decrees.html.
The Coeur d'Alene Tribe originally brought the suit against Hecla and other mining companies in 1991. The U.S. joined the suit in 1996.
The state of Idaho also joined the suit on Monday to participate in the settlement and resolve its claims against Hecla.
The lawsuit had a 78-day trial in 2001.
ASARCO, the other primary defendant named in the suit, reached a settlement to pay $494 million in 2008, when the company was emerging from bankruptcy.
The U.S., the Tribe and state have already settled claims against other defendants named in the suit, including Sunshine Mining and Corps Mining.
Chief Allan, chairman of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, lauded the former tribal leaders responsible for the suit.
"As we move from litigation to restoration, I'm certain they are smiling down on us today," Allan said. "The Tribe is hopeful that this settlement marks a new chapter in the stewardship of the land we all hold dear."