Published: Sunday, March 19, 2006
TACOMA - A giant burial mound in Ruston holds the ruins of Asarco's copper smelter: bricks, mortar and soil so saturated with arsenic and lead that the crypt they are buried in will have to be monitored indefinitely to prevent leaks.
Asarco is poised to sell its waterfront property to a Lacey developer, including the tomb and the responsibility for the hazardous waste in it.
An estimated $45 million in cleanup work remains to be done. But the developer, MC Construction, is expected to assume responsibility only for half, depending on how negotiations with federal regulators go.
Still untouched are as many as 500 contaminated residential yards, adjacent industrial properties and nearby aquatic lands.
The former Fortune 500 company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2005, and might be able to walk away from some of the nation's most vexing and expensive environmental cleanups.
That would burden taxpayers with more than $1 billion in obligations. And some regulators say that estimate is low.
The remaining cleanup in Ruston and Tacoma is just a fraction of Asarco's heritage nationwide. Asarco has told a federal bankruptcy judge that state and federal officials blame the company for contamination at 94 sites in 21 states.
Creditors fighting over the remains of the company could raid a small trust fund established to pay for cleaning up some of the worst pollution problems, officials said. But because trust fund distributions are prioritized based on human health risks, cleanup efforts in the Pacific Northwest could take a back seat to such places as:
* Omaha, Neb., home of the largest residential lead cleanup in the United States.
* El Paso, Texas, where contamination from a mothballed smelter and its 800-foot smokestack extends into Mexico and New Mexico.