Justice Department, Potlatch agree on Superfund settlement

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A Washington state company with land holdings in Idaho will pay $6 million in a settlement with the federal government over the cleanup of a northern Idaho Superfund site.

Potlatch Corporation and its subsidiary, Potlatch Land & Lumber, signed an agreement in early February with the Department of Justice, Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Highway Administration.

“The site is completely cleaned up and we don’t anticipate any more costs,” Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said in an email to The Associated Press.

The Justice Department said in court documents that a railroad company that went bankrupt caused the initial pollution that included arsenic and lead at the Avery Landing Superfund Site next to the St. Joe River near the town of Avery. Activities by Potlatch made the pollution problem worse, making that company financially responsible, the court papers said.

It demanded $13.5 million in 2015 for reimbursement costs for the federal cleanup. The company and federal officials signed a consent decree in early February, agreeing to a $6 million settlement.

Mark Benson, Potlatch’s vice president of public affairs, didn’t respond to a message left by The Associated Press.

“Our concern at the Avery Landing site was the contamination leaking into the St. Joe’s River,” the Environmental Protection Agency said in a statement. The EPA said it removed more than 116,000 tons (105,233 metric tons) of contaminated soil and treated about 22 million gallons (83 million liters) of contaminated groundwater.

“Yearly monitoring has shown the site has been successfully cleaned up and is ready for re-use and re-development,” the agency said.

About 66 miles of the St. Joe River, beginning upstream of Avery, has been designated part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System and offers a range of recreational opportunities.

The site has mixed ownership that includes Potlatch, the state of Idaho and a private owner. The Federal Highway Administration was involved because pollution spread from the site to soil beneath nearby National Forest Highway 50.

The entire 10-acre site, according to court documents, was owned from 1907 to the 1980s by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad, which used the area for refueling and maintenance. The company went bankrupt, and another company emerged from those proceedings and also went bankrupt.

Potlatch or Potlatch subsidiaries have owned portions of the site since about 1980.

The lawsuit said that Potlatch demolished above and below ground structures at the site to make way for log and materials storage, a rail line, and housing for employees.

Demolishing structures, the lawsuit said, spread contamination. Potlatch’s attempt to clean up the area, the lawsuit said, made the problem worse because the company didn’t use any form of treatment or filtration to remove hazardous substances and ultimately forced the migration of hazardous substances into the soil and groundwater.

The consent decree must be approved by a federal judge. The Justice Department is taking public comments on the agreement through March 23.

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