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Settlement would pay for cleanup of 3 Arizona mines

PHOENIX — State officials say three environmentally contaminated mines in Arizona would get a $23 million cleanup as part of a settlement with the mining company that owns them.

The deal is subject to the approval of a Texas court overseeing the bankruptcy reorganization of Asarco LLC, the Tucson-based company that owns the mining sites.

State officials say $20 million would fund the cleanup and revegetation of the Sacaton Mine, a 3,000-acre open-pit copper mine near Casa Grande that was abandoned in the 1980s.

About $3 million would pay for cleaning and restoring the 600-acre Salero and 335-acre Trench mines outside Patagonia in southern Arizona. Both mines were abandoned about a century ago.

The deal is part of a $260 million, 11-state settlement with Asarco to resolve ongoing environmental disputes at 17 mines.

“Resolution of these environmental claims is part of our effort to meet our obligations to our creditors, reorient ourselves and emerge from bankruptcy,” said Doug McAlister, Asarco’s general counsel.

Environmental regulators worry that hazardous chemicals left in mine sites will leach into the soil and groundwater.

Crews will use fresh rock or soil to cover piles of waste from mine operations and allow vegetation to grow. Officials expect the move to direct the flow of rainwater around the waste.

Officials don’t think the groundwater has been contaminated at any of Arizona’s three sites, but the settlement includes money for groundwater cleanup if it is needed, said Patrick Cunningham, acting director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

Cleanup could take up to 30 years if groundwater is found to be contaminated, Cunningham said.

Also as part of the settlement, Arizona would get about four miles of riparian habitat along the Lower San Pedro River south of Hayden and Winkelman in Gila County. The land, which has not been mined, is valued between $3 million and $4 million.

Officials say the property exchange would compensate for damage to Mineral Creek and the Gila River caused by releases from Ray Mine and the Hayden Facility, two active Asarco operations nearby.

The riparian habitat is home to many migratory birds, nesting raptors, waterfowl species and the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher. The settlement includes about $4 million for land management.

“The San Pedro River is one of the most important riparian areas in the state, and perhaps the most threatened,” said Mark Winkleman, commissioner of the State Land Department, which owns much of the land surrounding the river. “This settlement will help preserve it, and that is of the utmost importance to this state.”

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