HELENA – A federal judge has ordered the Atlantic Richfield Company, or ARCO, to pay almost $29 million toward cleaning up the East Helena smelter site.
U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen made the ruling Tuesday, after holding a bench trial on the case earlier this year. It’s the latest step in a years-long legal dispute between ARCO and ASARCO over responsibility for cleanup costs.
ASARCO and its predecessors operated a lead smelter outside East Helena from about 1888 to 2001. Starting in 1927, the Anaconda Company operated a zinc fuming plant, which it sold to ASARCO in 1972.
After decades of operations, the East Helena site was contaminated with lead, arsenic and other heavy metals. In 1984, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency added the site to its National Priorities List of sites that require environmental cleanup under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, also known as Superfund.
ASARCO has already paid more $111 million to address the environmental impacts at the site, as part of a 2009 settlement with the federal and state government. But the company claimed Anaconda’s zinc fuming operations contributed to arsenic contamination in groundwater near East Helena. They argued ARCO, which purchased the Anaconda Company in 1977, should be responsible for paying some of the cleanup costs.
ARCO argued that ASARCO filed its claim too late. In 2015, a Helena judge agreed, and absolved ARCO from any financial responsibility.
However, in 2017, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that decision, saying ASARCO’s claim was timely, based on the 2009 consent decree. The judges sent the case back to a lower court to determine whether ASARCO was entitled to compensation from ARCO – and if so, how much.
Christensen determined that ARCO was responsible for some of the cleanup costs, and he ordered the company to pay 25 percent of what ASARCO had paid, about $27.8 million. He also charged ARCO an additional $1 million for failing to fully cooperate with the authorities. He said, over the years, the company made a number of misrepresentations to the EPA and to ASARCO about its contributions to the contamination.