PHOENIX, Arizona, November 4, 2015 (ENS) – Mexican copper miner, smelter, and refiner ASARCO must pay more than $163 million to settle U.S. government charges that the company broken the law by releasing hazardous air pollutants, including lead and arsenic, from its primary copper smelter in Hayden, Arizona.

The Department of Justice and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Tuesday announced a settlement with ASARCO requiring the Mexican company to spend $150 million to install new equipment and pollution control technology to reduce emissions of toxic heavy metals at the smelter.

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Children play in Hayden City Park in the shadow of the ASARCO-owned Hayden Smelter and Concentrator. (Photo by AZ Public Media)

The company will also fund local environmental projects valued at $8 million, replace a diesel locomotive with a cleaner model for $1 million, and pay a $4.5 million civil penalty.

With the controls in place, the hazardous air pollutants should be reduced by at least 8.5 tons per year, and particle emissions are expected to be reduced by 3,500 tons per year, the agencies say.

ASARCO is owned by Grupo México, a Mexican consortium that owns Ferromex, the largest railroad in Mexico and operates mines and smelters, including the one in Hayden, that make it the fourth largest copper producer in the world.

The Hayden facility is one of three copper smelters in the United States, and the only one owned by ASARCO.

“ASARCO is committed to ensuring that the environment in Hayden is clean and safe, and we arethrilledthatwe’vereached an agreementwithEPAto moveforwardwith themodifications to the smelter,” said Jack Garrity, technical services manager at the Hayden Smelter.

“We believe we can accomplish the project safely and in an environmentally sound fashion while continuing to operate the smelter at normal capacity,” said Garrity. The project will take three years to complete.

Built in 1912 and expanded over the years, the ASARCO Hayden site is a copper ore processing, concentrating and smelter facility located next to the towns of Hayden and Winkelman.

The ASARCO plant includes a crusher, concentrator, smelter and tailings impoundment areas and produces 300 to 400 million pounds of copper and over half a million tons of sulfuric acid annually.

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ASARCO smelter worker watches operations at Hayden, Arizona (Photo courtesy ASARCO)

Currently, the ASARCO smelter is the largest source of sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions in Arizona. The new equipment and controls will slash the facility’s emissions by 19,000 tons per year, a reduction of more than 90 percent, the EPA estimates.

“Big enforcement actions like this result in big returns for American communities,” said EPA Assistant Administrator Cynthia Giles. “The upgraded pollution controls and advanced monitoring technologies ASARCO will install are key to a modern compliance program that cuts pollution around industrial plants.”

“This settlement will bring tremendous benefits to public health and the environment in Arizona for generations to come through dramatic cuts to harmful air emissions,” said Assistant Attorney General John Cruden for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The requirements of this consent decree will not only bring ASARCO into compliance with the nation’s clean air law, but will also result in testing for lead contamination in area homes and improvements to nearby roads to further improve air quality.”

Operations at the Hayden smelter take shipments of ore, which it processes through grinding and milling into a fine powder that is concentrated through a flotation process into a material called copper concentrate, which is about 28 percent copper.

Copper concentrate is stored in outdoor piles and then combined with other materials in the bedding operations, which are basically long trenches of fine grained sand or powder-like material. The bedded material is then fed into a flash furnace, in which it ignites with oxygen to burn off large quantities of sulfur and other impurities.

The copper-rich material exiting the flash furnace is called copper matte, and it is transferred by ladles to copper converter furnaces. The converter furnaces blow air, or oxygen-enriched air, through the material to burn away iron impurities and any remaining sulfur.

The material exiting a converter furnace is transferred in batches to an anode furnace, which blows natural gas into the material to burn off oxygen. The final material is then cast into anodes and shipped offsite to a facility for further refining.

EPA’s investigation found the company violated federal Clean Air Act standards by failing to adequately control emissions of hazardous air pollutants from the Hayden smelter.

Under the settlement, ASARCO will install new and upgraded ventilation hoods to capture hot flue gases from its furnaces to better capture the particulates, the hazardous air pollutants and SO2. The company will replace an aging electrostatic precipitator with a new, cleaner baghouse and inject high performance lime to reduce SO2 emissions.

To reduce wind-blown dust from the facility, which contains heavy metals, the company will implement an improved dust control plan, including the use of wind fences, upgraded water sprayers and the installation of concrete pads.

ASARCO will operate five ambient air monitors in and around the Hayden and Winkelman communities to track levels of pollutants and will make additional improvements to dust controls if levels are high.

“The communities living near this century-old smelter will breathe cleaner air as a result of this landmark enforcement action,” said Regional Administrator Jared Blumenfeld for EPA’s Pacific Southwest Region. “As one of only three major copper smelters in the nation, it is critically important that the facility operate in a way that complies with federal law, minimizes harmful pollutants and safeguards public health and the environment.”

The settlement requires ASARCO to spend $8 million to fund two environmental mitigation projects. Of this, $6 million will be used on a road paving project in Pinal County that will reduce dust pollution on local dirt roads close to the towns and benefit residents exposed to particulate emissions.

In addition, $2 million will be provided to the Gila County Environmental Health Services to conduct lead-based paint testing and abatement in homes, schools and other public buildings in the towns of Hayden and Winkelman.

ASARCO will spend $1 million to replace an existing diesel switch locomotive operated at the facility with a cleaner diesel-electric switch locomotive. The project will reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides, which are precursors to the formation of fine particulate matter and greenhouse gases.

Long-term inhalation exposure to inorganic arsenic is associated with irritation of the skin and can affect the brain and nervous system. Exposure to lead can cause effects on the blood, as well as the nervous, immune, renal and cardiovascular systems.

Particulate matter can cause coughing or difficulty breathing, decreased lung function, aggravated asthma and even premature death in people with heart or lung disease.

SO2 has also been linked to a number of adverse effects on the respiratory system and SO2 is also a precursor to the formation of PM2.5. Fine particles are also the main cause of haze in parts of the United States, including national parks and wilderness areas.

The PM2.5 and SO2 emission reductions achieved through compliance with this settlement will also serve to reduce visibility impairment owing to emissions from the facility.

The settlement was lodged with the U.S. District Court of Arizona and is subject to a 30-day public comment period and final court approval. The proposed consent decree is at: www.justice.gov/enrd/consent-decrees.

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