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Governor agrees to Superfund listing: State and EPA to look at private options first

Compacted tailings dominate the foreground with the Town of Dewey-Humboldt in the background at the Iron King Mine in Humboldt.

The Daily Courier file/
Jo. L. Keener

Compacted tailings dominate the foreground with the Town of Dewey-Humboldt in the background at the Iron King Mine in Humboldt. The Daily Courier file/ Jo. L. Keener

DEWEY-HUMBOLDT - Governor Janet Napolitano told the Environmental Protection Agency Thursday she wants the feds to pursue privately financed cleanup options for the Iron King Mine and smelter sites in Humboldt before the state commits to a Superfund listing.

In a letter to EPA Regional Administrator Wayne Nastri, Napolitano said the sites deserve a spot on the agency's National Priorities List, or NPL, for a Superfund hazardous waste cleanup of dangerous heavy metals such as arsenic and lead.

However, she added, the state will not agree to the listing unless the EPA postpones this action until Dec. 31.

A three-month delay would allow the smelter property's owner, Greenfields Enterprises of Prescott, or any qualified company interested in conducting part of the cleanup to enter into an agreement with the EPA.

"If successfully reached, such an agreement would be in the public interest as private funds (not taxpayer funds) would be used for a portion of the cleanup at this site," Napolitano wrote. "I fully expect, however, that the EPA should retain the option to continue actions to list this site on the NPL upon reaching such an agreement and/or if such an agreement cannot be reached."

Napolitano's deputy press secretary Shilo Mitchell said Greenfields Enterprises, upon learning of the NPL proposal, voluntarily asked the EPA and Arizona Department of Environmental Quality officials to discuss paying for a voluntary cleanup and settle potential liability before the EPA listing.

"The governor believes that three months is an appropriate time to reach a well-reasoned and comprehensive agreement on how they're going to clean it up," Mitchell said.

Warren Kuhles, Greenfields Enterprises manager, said he has tried to form a cleanup agreement with ADEQ and the EPA for the past two to three years on the smelter property.

"None of us have anything on paper yet from either side committing to anything," Kuhles said. "Am I confident anything will happen? No. Am I hopeful? Yes."

Kuhles said eventually he wants to develop part of the smelter property into an industrial park and build homes on the remainder of its untainted residential-zoned portions before selling it.

He said he is willing to invest $1 million to

$1.5 million to clean up the site, but the EPA still will have to treat the mine's massive tailings pile, which contributes most of the contamination. In 1968, Kuhles said, some tainted tailings washed out of the mine's pile and filled up Chaparral Wash behind a dam on his property, which sits downhill from the mine.

"We don't want to do anything with (the smelter site cleanup) until we have some sort of fine-tuned definition of where the limits of our liability lie in the fact that if we clean or disturb the earth we don't want to be contributing to a release (of contaminants),"

Kuhles said.

ADEQ director Steve Owens said an NPL listing is necessary for the mine and smelter because the state does not have the money to adequately do the job.

"We have 35 sites on the state Superfund list, and that fund is stretched pretty thin right now," he said. "There literally are no state dollars available to clean up this site. Our department will have a role helping EPA assess the site. But it's on EPA's shoulders now to come up with a cleanup plan and to pay for it."

The governor said any public/private cleanup agreement must be "legally enforceable" with EPA and ADEQ oversight and feature "extensive community involvement."

Napolitano said she is confident a short delay of the NPL listing will not put the public's health at risk.

Although available EPA data shows no known immediate environmental health threats at these sites, Napolitano added, the agency has proposed NPL action to remedy long-term exposure to contaminants.

On Tuesday, the Dewey-Humboldt Town Council agreed to recommend that the governor ask the EPA to place the mine and smelter on the Superfund list.

Within the past two weeks, the town's Environmental Issues Advisory Committee has urged the council to send a letter to Napolitano favoring the listing as the only option for cleaning up the contaminated areas.

"My concern remains that whatever solution is decided upon would be viable and address the site in a comprehensive manner with the proper authority in place," said Treesha deFrance, chairperson for the Environmental Issues Advisory Committee.

The issue of an NPL listing came to the forefront on June 27 when Nastri wrote a letter to Napolitano seeking the state's position about a possible Superfund designation for the sites.

Nastri wrote that "recent investigations" by ADEQ and the EPA demonstrate the smelter site "poses a significant threat to the public health, welfare and the environment."

ADEQ's 2003 and 2004 studies of the mine near the intersection of Highway 69 and Iron King Road and smelter close to the intersection of Third and Main streets concluded that arsenic and other metals have severely contaminated the soil, surface water and groundwater at those sites.