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Environmental Enforcement: Hecla Settles for $263m in Huge Superfund Case

The Hecla Mining Company will pay $263.4 million plus interest to the United States, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and the state of Idaho to resolve claims that it released millions of tons of wastes from its mining operations. The settlement resolves one of the largest cases ever filed under the Superfund statute, and wraps up decades of litigation.

The Bunker Hill Superfund site is one of the nation’s largest and most contaminated Superfund sites, the EPA said. At one time, the Upper Basin, or Silver Valley, was one of the largest silver producing districts in the world. As a result, the basin has widespread contamination from the release of metals like lead and arsenic, the agency said.

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe first sued Hecla and other mining companies in 1991 and was joined by the United States in 1996. The lawsuit sought damages for damage to natural resources such as clean water, and for injuries to fish and birds, allegedly caused by the mining wastes that had been released into the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River and its tributaries.

EPA began cleanup at the site in the 1980s. Although measurable improvements in public and environmental health have been made, widespread contamination remains, and cleanup work will continue for many years, the agency said. The suit also sought to recover cleanup costs.

Before reaching this settlement with Hecla, the United States, the tribe and Idaho had settled their claims against other defendants named in lawsuits over historic mine releases in the Coeur d’Alene Basin. The case history included a 78-day trial in 2001 on liability issues.

“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. Against all odds, the tribe made an unpopular decision to bring one of the largest superfund lawsuits in our nation’s history,” said chief J. Allan, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. “Today we honor Henry SiJohn, Lawrence Aripa and Richard Mullen, three former leaders who were instrumental in that decision and who all passed away before they could see the results of their remarkable determination.”

ASARCO, the other primary defendant named in the lawsuit, reached a $1 billion settlement with the United States in 2008 for cleanup at more than 20 sites, with $436 million earmarked for the Bunker Hill & Metallurgical Complex site. The settlement was reached while ASARCO was emerging from Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

This week’s settlement also includes a process for coordinating Hecla’s future mining operations with cleanup activities in the Coeur d’Alene Basin. 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.

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