Agreement To Allow Developer To Buy, Clean Up Contaminated Site

The federal government reached an agreement that will allow Asarco Inc. to sell its Tacoma, Wash.-area smelting operation to a local developer that will complete an estimated $28 million cleanup of the property, which is part of a federal Superfund site.

According to a July 27 announcement by EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Asarco will sell the Asarco Smelter property, part of the Commencement Bay Nearshore/Tideflats Superfund site, to developer Point Ruston LLC. This ensures that the cleanup work required on the approximately 97 acquired acres of contaminated land will be completed, officials said. Under this agreement, Point Ruston will assume all cleanup obligations on the property owned by Asarco and assume significant cleanup obligations on adjacent land which was also contaminated by Asarco's past operations.

"(This) action marks significant progress in the ongoing remediation of this site and reaffirms our continued commitment to ensuring that hazardous waste sites are cleaned up," said Matt McKeown, principal deputy assistant attorney general for DOJ's Environment and Natural Resources Division. "We are pleased that the amended consent decree will provide a positive outcome for all parties involved and most importantly will expedite the start of the cleanup and remediation of the site."

According to Granta Y. Nakayama, EPA's assistant administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, "This agreement is a giant step in transforming this site from a highly contaminated former smelting facility to a residential development. The cleanup and redevelopment of this land is a win all around. It enhances the environment, improves the local community, and promotes economic development."

Point Ruston intends to undertake residential and commercial development on the purchased property and will clean up the land to residential environmental standards. Along with the purchased property, Point Ruston has agreed to clean up the non-residential adjacent, contaminated property which due to the development will have significant public access.

The land is the former site of a smelting facility operated by Asarco from 1912 to 1985. A byproduct of the smelting process, called slag, was used by Asarco as fill material throughout the facility and was also poured into Commencement Bay to extend the shoreline of the smelter site by approximately 500 feet. Slag and other wastes from past smelter operations contaminate the property, and are a continuing source of contamination of groundwater below the site and to marine sediments offshore of the smelter property. According to current estimate, as much as 15 million tons of slag exists on the site today.

In 1997, a consent decree between EPA and Asarco mandated cleanup of the uplands portions of the smelter property and the adjacent properties. In 2000, EPA issued an administrative order requiring Asarco to perform the sediment and groundwater work. While Asarco has performed a substantial amount of the work required, much of the cleanup has yet to be implemented.

On Aug. 9, 2005, Asarco filed for bankruptcy protection under chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Texas. On Jan. 30, 2006 the bankruptcy court approved the sale of the property to MC Construction and the sale agreement was subsequently assigned to Point Ruston.

As part of pre-conditions of the sale set forth by the bankruptcy court, Point Ruston was required to reach an agreement with EPA regarding the cleanup of the property it is attempting to purchase. The federal government also agreed to release a Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA -- Superfund law) lien against the property in exchange for $1.5 million at closing and contingent payments over time that may reach $4 million so that the property can be sold free and clear of any encumbrances. These funds will be placed into a special account to be used to clean up contaminated sediments in areas not covered by this agreement. As part of the settlement, Point Ruston will also pay EPA's oversight costs.

Residential yards in north Tacoma, Wash., which were contaminated by the fallout from the Asarco Smelter are not covered in this agreement. The cleanup of these yards is being funded from a Trust Fund using money from a previous settlement with Asarco.

DOJ lodged the amendment to the existing consent decree in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. The consent decree will be subject to a 30-day public comment period and subsequent judicial approval. It is available on DOJ's Web site: http://www.usdoj.gov/enrd/Consent_Decrees.html.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.

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