According to a statement released by the Depeartment of Justice, Hecla Mining Company will pay $263.4 million plus interest to the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, the state of Idaho and the U.S. government to settle one of the largest cases ever filed under the Superfund statute. Bloomberg News reports that Hecla is the country’s largest silver mining firm.
The case concerns the Bunker Hill Mining and Metallurgical Complex Superfund Site, formerly one of the largest silver-producing regions in the world and currently one of the most contaminated of all the Superfund sites. From the late 1880s up until about 1968, mining operations dumped an estimated 100 million tons of mine waste into the river system. According to the EPA website, “About 20 miles of streams are unable to sustain a reproducing fish population, and about 10 miles of tributaries have virtually no aquatic life.” Children in the area are exposed to hazardous levels of lead in the drinking water, and “more than 15,000 acres of wildlife habitat contain sediments and soils which are acutely toxic to waterfowl.”
The lawsuit against Hecla and other mining companies began in 1991. “Twenty years ago tribal leaders were convinced that not enough was being done to clean up the Coeur d’Alene Basin following a century of mining activity in the Silver Valley,” said Chief J. Allan, Chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, according to the DOJ statement. “Against all odds, the tribe made an unpopular decision to bring one of the largest superfund lawsuits in our nation’s history. … The tribe is hopeful that this settlement marks a new chapter in the stewardship of the land we all hold dear. The tribe stands together with the United States, the state of Idaho and Hecla to restore our natural resources while we continue to provide economic prosperity to the region.”
According to the Shoshone News Press, “about 75 percent, of the settlement will go toward the recuperation of funds previously spent by state and federal agencies on cleanup measures dating back to the 1980s as well as ongoing and future cleanup, and the remainder will be dedicated to the remediation and restoration of natural resources.”
Cami Grandinetti, the EPA Team Manager for the Coeur d’Alene Basin Team, told the News Press that “a big part of reaching this settlement was the belief that it was time to put our differences behind us and move forward … I can’t speak for Hecla but I think they would agree. From EPA’s perspective, we’re happy to put our time, attention and resources toward remediation and not litigation.”
Grandinetti told the Coeur d’Alene Press that there is still roughly $2 billion worth of cleanup that needs to be done.
The other primary defendant named in the lawsuit, American Smelting and Refining Company LLC (ASARCO), paid $1.79 billion in 2008 as it was emerging from Chapter 11 bankruptcy; those funds were alotted by the Environmental Protection Agency to cleanup efforts at 26 different sites around the country.