MAC: Mines and Communities

North America's toxic mine burden galvanises groups into action

Published by MAC on 2007-11-11

North America's toxic mine burden galvanises groups into action

11th November 2007

Last week, MiningWatch Canada, along with fellow NGOGreat Lakes United, filed a suit to force the federal Canadian government to report mining's toxic waste burden.

South of the border, US organisations have announced that they will sue the US EPA for failing to ensure that mining companies take responsiblity for clearing up similar huge piles of hazardous wastes. Asarco was cited as one glaring example of such failure

Conservationists Sue to Make Defunct Miners Pay for Cleanups


6th November 2007

Conservation groups have filed a 60 day notice of their intent to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, for failure to establish financial assurance regulations for facilities that handle hazardous substances.

Annoucing the legal action on Tuesday, the groups said they want to make it harder for mining and other polluting industries to skip out on cleanups by declaring bankruptcy, leaving American taxpayers to pay for restoration.

The public interest law firm Earthjustice is representing the Sierra Club, Amigos Bravos of Taos, New Mexico; Great Basin Mine Watch of Reno, Nevada; and the Idaho Conservation League in this legal action.

"The worst offenders declare bankruptcy, opting to clear their plate of financial obligations and skip town," said Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans. "Residents are left with poisoned soil and water; taxpayers are stuck with a hefty cleanup bill."

In 1980, Congress established the Superfund Trust Fund to clean up hazardous sites when the liable party cannot be identified or is unable to pay. The Superfund Trust was funded by excise taxes on crude oil and chemicals and by a corporate environmental income tax. These taxes, however, expired in 1995, and Superfund's $3.8 billion surplus has now been spent.

When the Superfund law was passed, lawmakers gave EPA five years to put financial assurance regulations in place. More than 20 years later, the EPA has done "next to nothing," says Evans.

The groups' notice of intent to file suit states that, " EPA Administrator has identified classes of facilities that pose risks of creating environmental liabilities, published notice of their identification in the Federal Register, or promulgated any regulations that require facilities handling hazardous substances to establish and maintain evidence of financial responsibility for cleanup."

Last week, the House of Representatives approved the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation bill, which requires mine operators to post a bond to cover future cleanup costs before receiving a permit to mine on public lands.

The conservation groups are seeking to ensure that mines on private lands also are subject to federal bonding requirements.

The EPA ranks the mining industry as the nation's top toxic polluter, releasing cyanide, lead, arsenic, and mercury.

"The mining industry generates more than two billion pounds of toxic waste each year, and has polluted more than 40 percent of western watershed headwaters," Evans says

In 2004, the EPA reported that 63 hardrock mining sites were listed as Superfund sites, with an estimated cleanup cost of $7.8 billion. Of that, $2.4 billion was expected to come from taxpayers.

Evans points to Asarco, which declared bankruptcy in 2005, as "the most far-reaching example of irresponsible mining operations." The century-old mining and smelting company left 94 Superfund sites in 21 states, with a total cleanup cost estimated at more than $1 billion, outpacing the $100 million trust the company set aside for cleanup.

In Idaho, Asarco is among mining companies responsible for contamination across the 1,500 square mile Coeur d'Alene River basin. The EPA has estimated the cost of the first 30 years of cleanup work at $359 million. John Robison, public lands director of the Idaho Conservation League, said, "Both phosphate and hardrock mines have contaminated Idaho streams with toxic mine waste and left taxpayers footing the bill. Properly bonding mining operations will help keep mine waste from polluting our streams and rivers."

The New Mexico group Amigos Bravos has long called for Molycorp to take responsibility for the toxics it released during 40 years of operating the Molycorp/Chevron Mining molybdenum mine near Questa, contaminating the Red River and nearby aquifers.

In 2002, the company agreed to set aside $152 million for cleanup, but total costs could reach $400 million.

"If companies aren't on the line to clean up after themselves, there's no incentive for them to improve their waste management practices," said Amigos Bravos Executive Director Brian Shields.

In Nevada, 27 mining companies had declared bankruptcy as of July 2000. "We're still grappling with the legacy of bankruptcies from the 1990s," said Dan Randolph, executive director of Great Basin Mine Watch. "Given the frantic pace of mining today, if we had another rash of bankruptcies, the cleanup costs would be massive, not to mention the scale of environmental devastation."

In Illinois, communities face potential water contamination from industrial waste dumped in surface coal mines.

"Peabody Coal plans to dump 60 million tons of coal combustion waste in a coal mine near farms and homes," said Kathy Andria, waste and recycling chair of the Illinois chapter of Sierra Club. "It is critical that the money be available for cleanup if this toxic waste pollutes our water.

Current coal mining bonds are inadequate to pay for cleanup."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.

Canada's Environment Minister Sued Over Unreported Mine Waste

TORONTO, Ontario, Canada, (ENS)

7th November 2007

Two conservation groups launched legal action today against Canada's Minister of Environment seeking to force the reporting of what they claim are "hundreds of millions of kilos of toxic mining waste being kept secret from the Canadian public."

The public interest law firm Ecojustice filed the lawsuit in federal court on behalf of MiningWatch Canada and Great Lakes United, an international citizens coalition that works to preserve and restore the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River ecosystem on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border.

The complaint alleges that Minister John Baird broke the law when he directed mining companies to ignore their legal responsibility to report millions of kilos of pollution from their operations under the National Pollutant Release Inventory.

"The law is clear - mining companies in Canada are legally required to report the amount of chemicals they are releasing into the environment," said Justin Duncan, staff lawyer with Ecojustice.

"Instead, at the direction of the Minister of Environment, these companies continue to flout the law by not reporting massive amounts of toxic tailings they dump into our environment each year," Duncan said.

By contrast, the U.S. government has required mining companies to report the amounts of pollutants generated by their operations under the U.S. Toxics Release Inventory, TRI, since 1998, he said.

Despite the fact that the U.S. mining industry comprises only 72 of the 23,566 industrial facilities filing TRI reports to the U.S. government, Duncan cites government figures showing that in 2005 the mines released more than 530 million kilos of pollutants - accounting for 27 percent of all pollutants reported across the United States.

Duncan says mine tailings and waste rock accounted for more than 97 percent of the total pollutants reported by the U.S. mining industry. It is the data on these pollutants that are being withheld from the Canadian public, the groups claim.

"Given the enormous amounts of carcinogens and heavy metals like lead and mercury in U.S. mine tailings, it is absurd that Canadian mines are being let off the hook," said Joan Kuyek from MiningWatch Canada.

The 80 metal mining facilities that reported to Canada's National Pollutant Release Inventory in 2006 were from: Ontario(33), Quebec(19), BC(9), Manitoba(6), Saskatchewan(6), Newfoundland(3), New Brunswick(2), Nunavut(2), the groups say.

"From Smithers to Voisey's Bay, Canadians have a right to know what - and how much - pollution the mining industry is releasing into our air, water, and soil," said Kuyek.

"Two weeks ago the Minister of the Environment stood on the shore of Lake Superior with the Prime Minster as they announced the creation of the world's largest freshwater marine park," said John Jackson of Great Lakes United. "At the same time he protects the mining industry by hiding the toxic pollution that could spoil this ecosystem for generations."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the creation of Canada's newest National Marine Conservation Area on October 25. More than 10,000 square kilometers of Lake Superior, including the lakebed, islands and shorelands, will become the largest freshwater marine protected area in the world.

On the Ontario side of the lake, there are five gold mines and one palladium mine in production. Hundreds of abandoned mines are scattered throughout the area, according to a 2001 report by the nonprofit group Northwatch.

The active mines on Canada's Superior coast are among the country's largest, including the open pit and underground gold mines of the Hemlo camp and the expanded palladium mine at Lac des Iles, north of Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.

Asarco: The end of an era

By EVE BYRON - Independent Record

11th November 2007

In five years, chances are the only above-ground legacy left from more than 100 years of lead smelting in East Helena will be Asarco's water treatment plant and the slag pile that rises above the city.

"Our plan is to completely clean and demolish the plant at some point in the near future," Jon Nickel, Asarco's environmental manager and one of the few employees still working at the idled smelter, told a crowd at a recent community meeting. "We're evaluating putting a permanent cap over the plant so the presence of Asarco's East Helena plant will not be there."

Iver Johnson, a solid and hazardous waste specialist with the state Department of Environmental Quality, put it more succinctly. "I'd guess that by 2012, where you see the plant now, there will be a mound, basically of fill dirt."

It's a bittersweet end to the industry that put East Helena on the map, as a company town largely created in 1899 when various businesses combined to form the American Smelting and Refining Co. During the plant's 100th anniversary in April 1999, then-East Helena Mayor Larry Moore was quoted as saying "when you say East Helena, you almost have to say Asarco in the same breath."

At that point, the company provided 55 percent of the town's tax base and was one of the largest employers not just in East Helena, but in all of Lewis and Clark County. The plant's five smokestacks and slag pile defined the town's skyline.

Together, East Helena and Asarco weathered mining strikes, soaring and slipping metal prices, the Great Depression and a plethora of environmental laws that all threatened the company's future at one time or another.

The plant's demise, however, can be tied most closely to the company's sale in November 1999 to the international copper conglomerate Grupo Mexico, which "temporarily" mothballed the smelter less than two years later.

It was tough going at first, with employees staunchly believing the Asarco era would never end. But as equipment was auctioned off and the days of the "temporary" closure stretched into years, the letting go began. Today, even former employees of the lead smelter, who at one time embraced the company, have moved on.

"I don't think we'll miss it," said Dave Duel, who worked at the plant for 30-plus years before retiring after the closure six years ago. "We'll miss the jobs, but 90 percent of the people found healthier, cleaner jobs."

Jill Cohenour, whose East Helena neighbors voted her into Montana's House of Representatives, said she's seen a significant turnaround in people's attitudes toward Asarco in recent years.

"When I first ran in 2003, Asarco was still part of the community, but it's so different now," Cohenour said. "Younger families are moving in who don't have a history with the plant and the ties to it are breaking.

"There's a different thought process about the company. People are angry with the way it treated them. They're angry with the way things are progressing."

That April 2001 shutdown signaled the beginning of the end, in a large part due to hazardous waste storage laws. The dozens of buildings named for their part in the lead smelting process — a drossing plant, a speiss plant, the bag houses and others — were caked with decades of hardened, baked-on dust contaminated with heavy metals that even jackhammers couldn't remove.

"They were in there with picks and shovels, and got into some areas that frankly was a safety concern; it was a hazard putting people up in the high beams, trying to scrap that material off," Johnson said. "It just didn't make good sense."

This unintended storage of the heavy metals violates Montana's hazardous waste laws. So state and federal officials, working in conjunction with Asarco, put together a plan to bring the site into compliance. To do so means they'll have to remove just about every standing structure.

"You look at time, energy and access, and it became clear that it's so much easier to mow the buildings down and clean it all up as best you can," Johnson said. "There's so much cadmium, chromium, arsenic, and obviously lead, that they consider all the debris would be hazardous waste, and we'll treat it as such."

Asarco is in the midst of Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, which includes a fight with its parent company, Grupo Mexico, over how to manage the company's finances. So officials both at the former East Helena smelter, as well as those in Asarco's corporate office, declined requests by the Independent Record for on-site visits or for comments on the work currently going on at the plant site.

But through records filed with the bankruptcy court, a recent Asarco annual meeting and interviews with the Department of Environmental Quality, the future of the East Helena site becomes quite clear.

The ambitious plan basically calls for bulldozing or otherwise razing all of the 90 or so buildings that were part of the smelting and ancillary processes, including structures of various sizes, shapes, materials and ages. These are relics of another time, when leaded gasoline powered cars, lead-based paint coated walls and lead batteries weren't recycled.

The zinc plant, with its 350-foot smokestack, was the first to go in 2005. It hadn't been used in years.

During 2006, the sinter plant, which burned sulfur off of about 1,000 tons of crushed ore each day for decades, met the wrecking ball. Next to drop was the nearby big blue drossing plant, where copper "dross" was skimmed off the top of melted lead in 80-ton kettles and shipped to Asarco copper smelters in Tacoma, Wash., or Hayden, Ariz., for further processing.

That was followed by the cottrell and adjacent mist precipitator buildings, where dust was removed from sinter machine gasses before the gas was emitted through another smokestack. The lab, where ore was tested and valued for its metal content, was ripped down too.

Demolition slowed for the summer of 2007, as Asarco, along with state and federal officials, put together new work and finance plans. The federal Environmental Protection Agency decided Asarco would need to sink a "slurry wall" 35 feet into the ground to block the off-site migration of an underground arsenic plume, so the attention focused on the buildings above ground where the subterranean wall would be installed.

"On or around the first of September, the first thing that went down was the main office building," Johnson said. "Then the contractor's change house and lunch room, and the charge buildings. The thaw house, where frozen ore thawed, is gone. The old garage is gone. The natural gas valve house is down. The drossing plant's bag house and 200-foot stack went down two weeks ago.

"They just finished up with the blast furnace last week, and a portion of what we call the high line track is gone from there."

Johnson noted that they used a machine with "claws like what you'd find on a lobster" to chop up seven rail cars from the thaw house, which were trucked out as scrap metal. Most of the remnants are being stockpiled into two or three of the newer covered buildings until a pit is dug and covered with a thick liner along the southern edge of the plant. The bulk of the debris will be dumped in the pit — called a CAMU, or Corrective Action Management Unit — then covered and monitored in perpetuity.

The buildings' footprints and any leftover gouges in the ground are filled in with slag, then covered with water-resistant materials.

At this point, they've maxed out storage capacity on site for the building debris, so the next step is to build the CAMU in the spring before additional demolition takes place.

Scrap metal that can be cleaned is being stored temporarily, then taken out by rail or truck for recycling or for resale.

"It makes sense to try to sell the scrap metal, then apply that money against the cost of cleanup," Johnson said. "Asarco is a big elephant, and you just take it one bite at a time. We've taken a lot of bites over the last couple of years. Now that the Administrative Order of Consent is done, we can continue to chomp away and get it done."

Johnson is especially anxious to complete the job, since many of the buildings have holes in the roofs and walls, exposing the hazardous wastes to the environment.

Johnson characterized the tentative work plan for next summer as "pretty ambitious."

Most significant, perhaps, will be the demolition of the 400- and 420-foot smokestacks from the blast furnace and sinter plant, along with the 200-foot acid plant stack. Johnson said the interior of the stacks already have been sprayed with power washers, with the resulting hazardous sludge collected from the base and stored on site.

"When the stacks come down, they'll fall in on themselves," Johnson said. "The dust people will see will be concrete, mortar — that type of dust — and it shouldn't have an appreciable amount of heavy metals in it."

They'll demolish the blast furnace bag house, which contained thousands of wool and cotton sacks hanging from the ceilings. The bags filtered heavy metals out of gases that were released through the smokestacks.

The blast furnace flue, a brick tunnel that runs for hundreds of feet in and around the plant perimeter, as well as the adjoining monier flue, also is set to come down.

The acid plant, constructed for $40 million in 1976 to contain sulfur compounds and which looks like a giant moonshiner's still, also is slated for removal. The breaking floor, where ore was crushed with a huge hammer-like device before being processed and the sinter stockpile building both are on the demolition list.

The last to go probably will be the ore concentrate storage and handling buildings, known as the Barnum and the Bailey buildings, due to their resemblance of circus tents. This is where the scrap metal and the rest of the contaminated materials are being stored until they can be deposited in the CAMU or sold. The two buildings are certified to hold hazardous waste, notes Johnson.

"The target date outlined by Asarco to have everything done is 2011," Johnson said.

He noted that once Asarco decided to demolish the plant, the company has aggressively pursued action — quite unlike the year-long standoff in 2004-05 over how to dispose of a tanker car filled with highly volatile sodium metals.

"I can't emphasize enough that Asarco is doing this, kind of on their own," Johnson said. "They are spending big bucks to do this proactively. I don't carry a heavy hammer when I go out there.

"They want to get it done, and do it right."

For now, no plans are in place for the estimated 9 million tons of slag — the black, glass-like leftovers from the smelting process that is piled in mounds on the northeast side of the plant pile. It has some value, since better refining processes could produce more metals or zinc from it. Various companies have shown some interest in it.

Johnson expects Asarco will retain the on-site water treatment plant because even after all the buildings are gone, rain, snow and runoff flowing across the plant site will still have to be treated to ensure no heavy metals are flushed down-gradient or downstream into Prickly Pear Creek.

The demise of Asarco initially was hard on the town, with the already present economic stress causing some businesses to close and homes to be put up for sale. The loss to the city's tax base is still sorely felt, noted Mayor Terri Casey. Asarco still owns ranches with lead-contaminated soil that the company bought, which form a semi-circle around East Helena, and can't be developed until an agreement is reached with the EPA.

"If we could get some forward movement, and maybe get the ground west of town developed, that sure would help," Casey said.

But she doesn't miss the plant itself, and believes East Helena will emerge from the shadow of Asarco. Young families are moving into new subdivisions, new businesses are moving into vacated storefronts and new plans are being made for the future.

"This is a good place to live. It's a good place to raise kids," Casey said. "We're happy to see them come in and are hoping they'll do well and thrive."

To browse through the IR's archive of ASARCO coverage and to explore an interactive map of the plant, check out

Asarco: Toxic legacy

By EVE BYRON - Independent Record

11th November 2007

Deep in the heart of the East Helena Asarco plant, under and around the buildings where a century of smelting took place, lies toxic, arsenic-laden soil that's marrying with groundwater to flow into the Helena valley.

In places, the arsenic in the groundwater under the former lead smelter is 22,900 times the federal drinking water standard — so toxic that drinking two 8-ounce glasses would be fatal to an adult. It would take less than one glass of water with arsenic at this level to kill a child, according to information from the federal Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry.

"Don't drink it or even taste it," said Selena Chou, an environmental health specialist with the Registry. "That amount is very, very, very high."

It's cost prohibitive — and almost impossible — to remove the arsenic from the groundwater. So the Environmental Protection Agency is trying to slow, or even halt, the plume's movement off-site.

The derived-upon solution is surprisingly simple. Dig four ditches, generally 35 to 45 feet deep, 3 feet wide and 200-plus-feet long, making a 1,350-foot-long roughly rectangular shape. At the bottom is a layer of volcanic ash and clay.

Fill those ditches with a mixture of soil and bentonite, then put a clay or asphalt cap on top of it.


The arsenic is contained by this "slurry wall" — or so the theory goes.

"It's like installing a bathtub around it," said Linda Jacobsen, the on-site project manager for the EPA. "We're isolating the source area so the groundwater goes around the contaminated materials rather than through and carry it down-gradient" into East Helena and the Helena Valley.

The slurry wall won't remove the contamination. Bob Miller, a hydrologist for Asarco, said that's not an option at this point.

"The bottom line is it isn't very practical" to remove arsenic from groundwater, Miller said. He adds that it's also not practical to excavate all of the contaminated soils from which the arsenic is leaching because "there's just not enough money in the world" to remove that amount of cubic yards of material.

"The slurry wall is an interim measure," Miller said. "Those can be permanent — they may not be standing alone — but it is an interim measure."

Jacobsen said that by isolating the high source of arsenic, they'll stop feeding the plume into East Helena and eventually that plume will become diluted with clean groundwater.

"They told me and convinced me you have to do source control first," Jacobsen said. "So we identified the major source areas — the former acid drying area, and the speiss/dross area. Doing source control there will allow the aquifer to stabilize."

Those areas generally are in the middle of the East Helena plant.

The underground arsenic plume stretches northwest from the Asarco lead smelter to monitoring wells west of Wylie Drive, which were installed in 2005 in an effort to locate the leading edge of the plume. The amount of arsenic in water at the farthest well is detectable, but still below the federal drinking water standard.

However, that's not the case elsewhere. A well at Wylie and Groschell is 200 times the federal standard. Two blocks closer to the plant — at Second and Main — the plume is 1,100 times the standard.

Groundwater depth in the monitoring wells ranges from 8 feet to 35 feet below the surface.

Residential wells are in the plume's path, but EPA officials say those wells are used only for nonconsumptive uses and the amount of arsenic in them, if any, is below the drinking water standard.

Although not as widely reported, elevated levels of arsenic also are present in monitoring wells on either side of Prickly Pear Creek, which runs through the center of East Helena. A well between Cleveland and Morton, just south of West Main Street, is six times greater than the standard. On the other side of the creek, in a test well near the intersection of East Main and Thurman, arsenic is 39 times the standard.

One well has a depth to groundwater of 8 feet; the other is 16 feet. Jacobsen said the contaminated water in that aquifer doesn't flow into Prickly Pear Creek because it's lower than the creek.

"It appears that Prickly Pear Creek isn't in connection with the groundwater that's lower than the creek," Jacobsen said.

A new wrinkle was added to the underground plume dilemma last year, when selenium was discovered in test wells under the city. Now, it's even showing up in wells without elevated levels of arsenic, and appears to be more widespread than the arsenic, although it's at much lower levels.

It's unclear if the two issues are related, or where the selenium originated. Arsenic occurs naturally in low levels in water in the Helena area, and selenium can be present naturally in some environments. In fact, a certain amount of selenium is needed for muscle and enzyme functions.

But both arsenic and selenium are known byproducts of the smelting process.

It's clear the arsenic is coming from the lead smelting plant in finger-like flows. But recent tests didn't show elevated levels of selenium in the groundwater there and the selenium plume lies horizontal to the plant. The elevated levels don't show any patterns.

"Almost all of the samples we pulled from the plant site are lower than what we are seeing in the city of East Helena," Miller said. "One thing that we'll do is sample everything for selenium and try to get a better pattern. ... It really isn't a major element relative to the smelting process, but in smelting you get a little bit of everything."

The selenium is present at elevated levels in 20 of the 31 monitoring wells under East Helena, generally between double and six times the federal drinking water standard.

According to the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry, if the amount of selenium found below East Helena were consumed during a period of a few months, a person might experience symptoms like deformed fingernails or toenails, and brittle hair or hair loss. Those most at risk are infants, elementary and preschool age children, since they would get a higher dose due to their lower body weights.

In comparison, the amount of arsenic present under the city would cause nausea and vomiting if a person were to drink it. After a few weeks, that amount of arsenic could destroy a person's digestive tract and cause organ failure.

Afew years ago, the EPA installed a test barrier, known as a PRB — or permeable reactive barrier — generally consisting of a ditch filled with iron filings. Water could flow through the PRB but the arsenic bonded with the iron, lessening the off-site migration.

Jacobsen said the EPA has a contractor testing different combinations of reactive media to see what might be able to contain both selenium and arsenic.

"We'll continue to look at boundary systems, before you get across Highway 12," Jacobsen said. "The PRB will work better if we cut the source of the arsenic off and if the selenium isn't there."

They're also considering installing a PRB near the head of the arsenic plume to keep it from moving farther into the Helena Valley.

But both Jacobsen and Miller stress that these are possibly only temporary measures. Even if they are permanent, the final cap for the slurry wall would have to be replaced because it would be contaminated during the ongoing demolition effort of plant buildings.

In addition, at this point, no one knows what will become of the East Helena plant site.

"Any kind of permanent measure would have to look at future reuse of the facility," Jacobsen said. "Asarco and I realize that as more of the demolition is done, we'll do a risk assessment, looking at ecological and public health and we'll do a corrective measure study. We'll see what kind of other uses there may be for the site, then determine the final remedy. If these measures are working — and we have 13 monitoring wells around it, both in and about the site — it will probably be left in place.

"Our goal is to get to the (drinking water) standard, but whether that's ultimately achievable, that's the question."


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