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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Superfund: Billion-Dollar Battle

Air Date: Week of

Close to a billion dollars is at stake in a trial that continues this week in Montana over the nation's largest superfund site, a copper mine. Atlantic Ritchfield Oil Company now owns the mine site previously owned by Anaconda Copper, and Montana is suing ARCO for clean-up funds. Living On Earth's Jennifer Schmidt reports on the case that has ramifications for reauthorization of the Superfund law.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Close to a billion dollars is at stake in a trial that continues this week in US District Court in Great Falls, Montana, over the nation's biggest Superfund site. It's a giant copper mine in Butte that was once operated by Anaconda and later the oil giant Atlantic Ritchfield. The state of Montana has sued ARCO, demanding massive amounts of pollution abatement and natural resource restoration. But ARCO says the state wants too much, and as Living on Earth's Jennifer Schmidt reports, the case is also influencing the battle over reauthorization of the Superfund law in Congress.

SCHMIDT: From the 1880s through the 1950s, over 13 billion pounds of copper was excavated from the Anaconda mine. Most of it was pulled from underground mine shafts. But when the high-grade ore began to run out, Anaconda bulldozed most of Butte's original neighborhoods to make way for a new type of surface mining. John Sesso is a local county planner and long-time resident.

SESSO: In 1955, the Anaconda company decided to switch to open pit mining and proceded to build, you know, what is the largest open pit mine in North America, you know, within a 9-iron of the uptown commercial area.

SCHMIDT: Today life in Butte continues in the shadow of the mine. But most of the riches are gone. What's left is an open pit slowly filling with toxic groundwater and a costly cleanup bill. Under Superfund it's ARCO's responsibility to pay because it bought the mine from Anaconda in the late 1970s -- a decision it would come to regret. In 1983, the area was declared the nation's biggest Superfund site. ARCO General Manager Sandy Stash says to date the company spent over $300 million on clean-up. They've capped mine waste, planted vegetation, even christened a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course built on top of an old smelter site.

STASH: We've done nothing in Montana but spend considerable amounts of money and effort on clean-up.

SCHMIDT: But the state of Montana says this isn't enough. State officials won't comment during the trial, but have maintained the law requires companies not only to get rid of pollution that's threatening human health but also to restore soil, water, and other natural resources. But ARCO's Sandy Stash says asking the company to hand over $700 million to cover natural resource damage is unprecedented and unfair.

STASH: The state of Montana is asking us to pay twice. They should take into account what has been accomplished in the field. The remediation, the cleanup that we are doing, is restoring the resources back to the people of Montana and in many cases improving upon what was here to begin with.

SCHMIDT: But environmental activists, including Jim Jensen, executive director of Montana's Environmental Information Center, says ARCO hasn't done enough.

JENSEN: To date, ARCO's cleanup has been on the cheap. They have tried to do the least that the EPA could get away with requiring them to do. If they would do more reclamation and do it right, remove materials from the floodplain rather than trying to cap them, then maybe the natural resource damage claim, and undoubtedly this natural resource damage claim would be for less money.

SCHMIDT: Much of the soil surrounding the pit remains polluted with poisonous heavy metals. It's unlikely the area will ever be completely cleaned up. For example, the cost of pumping up contaminated groundwater, filtering out heavy metals, and returning it underground would be so expensive the price tag has never been seriously calculated. County planner Jon Sesso says even if the cleanup were attempted, local residents would still be wary.

SESSO: In my view, you'd never get it to the point where you'd feel comfortable letting your kid drink the water anyway.

SCHMIDT: The state has acknowledged these hurdles. So in some instances, it's seeking restoration money from ARCO with the intention of protecting groundwater and cleaning up mine tailings elsewhere. For many, this case is a sign of how much Superfund needs fixing. As reform minded lawmakers like to point out, much of the money that could be spent on cleanup is now spent on lawyers. With close to a billion dollars at stake in this case alone, the mining industry is lobbying hard for changes that would limit their liability. Still, Congress is stalled on the issue, and some western lawmakers want to keep it that way, at least until the Montana case is over. Jeremy Bernstein has been covering the Montana ARCO case for Superfund Report.

BERNSTEIN: I think the biggest impact probably is going to be in the way Congress considers any future changes to the Superfund law. Senator Max Baucus who's the senior Democratic senator from Montana has been very concerned that any changes to the law not interfere with Montana's case.

SCHMIDT: The possibility remains that the state of Montana and ARCO can reach a last minute settlement. But for now, ARCO is vowing to let the court decide whether it will be the company or taxpayers who must face the consequences of this environmental disaster. For Living on Earth, this is Jennifer Schmidt.



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