Three weeks ago, I had not heard of ASARCO. Three years from now, I hope most people in Missouri politics won’t recall it. What happens next is up to Gov. Nixon.
ASARCO is the American Smelting and Refining Company. It’s been around since 1899. In 2005, it filed the largest environmental bankruptcy in U.S. history. Eventually, a federal bankruptcy court in Texas approved the creation of a $1.79 billion settlement fund to be shared amongst federal and state agencies charged with protecting the environment.
Missouri’s portion of the case was settled in 2007 when ASARCO agreed to pay nearly $35 million for environmental damages at five sites in southeast Missouri’s lead mining district. The ASARCO settlement was specific about where that money could be spent. The bankruptcy court ordered ASARCO settlement funds to be segregated by each site and limited spending to “restoration activities at or in connection with each” of the five sites.
By far, the biggest settlement was for sites on the Big River. With interest, that settlement account holds approximately $33 million today. Other settlements were created for the West Fork and Sweetwater mines in Reynolds County (now worth a combined $3.8 million), the Glover Smelter in Iron County (now worth $2.5 million), and the Madison County Mine in Madison County (now worth $1.6 million).
The area needs environmental remediation. For example, the Department of Natural Resources lists 93 miles of the Big River as “impaired” and has found that 75 miles of sediments in the Big River are contaminated. Not surprisingly, St. Francois County residents would like to use ASARCO settlement funds to clean up the areas ASARCO damaged. In Madison County, local officials want to use the $1.6 million in ASARCO settlement funds to clean-up the Fredericktown City Lake, the only water-supply for a town of 4,000 Missourians.
Three trustees control the settlement funds: the state of Missouri through the Department of Natural Resources, and the federal government through representatives of the Forest Service and Fish & Wildlife Service. Before the trustees can spend the money, they have to create a plan that’s subject to public hearings. On September 2, the trustees held a “public” meeting – notice of which was not posted ahead of time on the DNR website.
At the meeting, the trustees revealed a plan to spend more than $20 million of the settlement “off-site,” including a substantial portion of the acquisition of land and creation of a new state park in Oregon County. The first question should be obvious: what does Oregon County have to do with this settlement?
The answer: nothing. The trustees’ presentation included a map of the affected “Southeast Missouri Lead Mining District” – and Oregon County doesn’t even appear on the map.
Indeed, the Oregon County property isn’t even in the same watershed where most of the environmental damage occurred. The Oregon County property is on the Eleven Points River, which flows south, joining the Black and Spring Rivers near Black Rock, Arkansas then the White River near Jacksonport, Arkansas. The Big River runs north, joins the Meramec and then runs into the Mississippi just south of St. Louis. The water molecules of the Big River don’t have the opportunity to interact with the water molecules of the Eleven Points in the Mississippi River until a point near Gunnison, Mississippi – two hours south of Memphis.
Public hearings and open government have multiple purposes. First, there’s the underlying democratic value of accountability. Second, public hearings are the process through which ideas can be vetted. Some ideas appear sound in the cocoon of a small group, but flaws are revealed when shared with the public.
Whosever idea it was to spend the ASARCO funds on a new state park ought to be given the benefit of the doubt. Gov. Nixon has a passion for conservation and state parks. Others have criticized his effort to build a new state park at Camp Zoe. I’m hopeful that it will become the jewel of our state park system and a tourist attraction for both Missourians and visitors from throughout the United States.
But passion also blinds. What’s obvious to outsiders is not so to those with a singular focus. I believe that’s exactly what has happened with DNR and the other trustees’ plan for the ASARCO settlement. To DNR and the trustees’ credit, they have extended the public comment period for their plan and set a a new public hearing date. It’s expected that the Missourians whose communities ASARCO pollution actually impacted will offer alternatives. In the great disinfectant of a public hearing, they’ll get to make their case that spending the money to clean up drinking water supplies for Missourians is more important than creating a new state park. Likewise, they’ll have the opportunity to point out that clean-up on the Big River, where the pollution actually occurred, is not only where the money allocated to the Big River sites must be spent under the settlement, but where good public policy dictates it should be spent.
On Friday, Speaker Todd Richardson appointed me chairman of a House committee to look into DNR’s ASARCO plan. I’m hopeful that we won’t even have a hearing. The buck stops at the governor’s desk. On ASARCO, Gov. Nixon has the opportunity to do the right thing: direct DNR to scrap the plan to divert money away from needs in the impacted areas. Clean drinking water is more important than a new state park.