The owner of the highly polluted Kin-Buc Landfill in Edison has agreed to make the largest environmental clean-up contribution in the United States, $1.79 billion, as part of a bankruptcy settlement.
The funds will be divided among scores of contaminated properties around the country, with most of the major ones in the West, where the American Smelting and Refining Co. is headquartered in Tucson.
The potential infusion of money could be timely for Kin-Buc, where contamination levels have flared up and funding for more work has been scarce.
"That could be very good news," said Robert Spiegel of the Edison Wetlands Association, which has championed continued clean-ups at the heavily contaminated landfill.
Under the deal, the ASARCO will emerge from bankruptcy under its old ownership, Grupo Mexico, whose control was suspended during the complex bankruptcy proceedings.
For more than a century, the company has been one of the nation's largest players in the non-ferrous metal industry, first as a holding company and then as a copper mining, smelting and refining operation. It was founded in 1899 by industrialists including William Rockefeller, but they soon lost control to the Guggenheim family.
Grupo Mexico acquired the firm in 1999, but its fortunes quickly tumbled following a drop in copper prices and a wave of environmental lawsuits from private interests and various levels of government.
ASARCO has been fighting lawsuits over its pollution for almost a century, and the Texas Observer last year labeled it "one of the dirtiest companies in American history." The settlements covers 20 sites currently on the federal Superfund clean-up list, including Kin-Buc, plus more than 60 other contaminated properties.
In 2005, Grupo Mexico sought bankruptcy protection for ASARCO and shifted one of its most lucrative assets, Peruvian mine holdings, into a shell corporation. That eventually led ASARCO to sue Grupo Mexico, after U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Richard Schmidt took the unusual step of putting the subsidiary under control of an independent board.
Grupo Mexico owner German Larrea Mota-Velasco, trying to reclaim ASARCO, faced a protracted challenge in bankruptcy court from Indian billionaire Anil Agarwal. In November, bankruptcy judges favored Larrea's bid, which added $1.4 billion in cash from ASARCO.
Announcing the settlement on Dec. 10, U.S. officials hailed the deal, siting payments toward federal and state clean-ups as well others being overseen by trusts.
"Our combined efforts have resulted in the largest recovery of funds to pay for past and future clean up of hazardous materials in the nation's history," said federal Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli. "Today is a historic day for the environment and the people affected across the country."
"This will mean cleaner land, water and air for communities across the country," said Cynthia Giles, an assistant administrator of enforcement and compliance assurance at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Under the deal, the United States will get $776 million to address contamination at 35 sites around the country. The next biggest share, $436 million, will go to the Coeur d'Alene Work Trust to clean up a mining complex along the Idaho-Washington border.
Another $321 million will go to fund clean-up obligations in 14 states, while three other trusts receive $261 million toward sites in 13 states.
Clean-up efforts have been going on for two decades at the 220-acre Kin-Buc property overlooking the Raritan River, one of the largest and most heavily contaminated Superfund sites in New Jersey.
From the late 1940s to 1976, an estimated 70 million gallons of liquid waste and one million tons of solid waste was dumped at the landfill, leaving it heavily contaminated with carcinogenic PCBs and leaching into neighboring Edmonds Creek.
Although extensive clean-ups have taken place over the past two decades, monitoring indicates the problems are far from over, Spiegel said.
"Right now, out on Edmonds Creek the levels of PCBs in fish and crabs are going back up again and nobody knows why," he said. "This will take very sophisticated testing, as well as the most important thing, finding a solution, and there hasn't been anybody with deep pockets available to pay for it."
EPA officials said the $1.79 billion figure reflects total state and federal claims for the sites filed during the bankruptcy proceedings, but that is not necessarily the last word on costs.
"The sites are in all stages of contamination identification, remedy decisions and completed work, so it is not possible to provide a precise figure," said EPA spokeswoman Deb Berlin. "But the money is adequate to clean up a substantial portion of the contamination."