An agreement on covering, sealing and stabilizing the giant mound of dusty red bauxite aluminum refining tailings on St. Croix’s South Shore has been reached and work should start late next year, government officials said Friday.
Harvey Aluminum Corp. began developing the first plant on the site in 1962 and several different companies owned the manufacturing plant over the ensuing 40 years, the last being St. Croix Alumina. Over the decades, the plant produced millions of tons of caustic red tailings as a byproduct of making aluminum. Wind has spread the dust around neighboring properties and erosion has moved some of the tailing into collecting ponds, toward the shoreline and to some extent onto the nearby seabed.
Tailings are the materials left over after separating the valuable from the waste part of an ore, like the extraction of aluminum from bauxite.
Local and federal enforcement officials have been trying to assess fault and cleanup responsibility for the noxious metallurgical wastes deposited on the site over several decades, even as several former owners of the plant and the land it sits upon fight protracted court battles over who is holding the bag.
In 2005, Gov. Charles Turnbull’s administration filed suit against a slew of companies that owned the property at one time or another, including St. Croix Alumina, Alcoa World Alumina, St. Croix Renaissance Group, Lockheed Martin, Century, and Vialco. In the wake of federal mediation begun in February, Attorney General Vincent Frazer approved the concept of a global settlement of all claims regarding the bauxite tailings earlier this year.
In a telephone conference call Friday, Frazer said Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Alicia Barnes had reached agreements with St. Croix Renaissance Group and St. Croix Alumina. Century was removed from the suit because it only owned the property for a single day, but the suit will continue against the remaining parties who have yet to settle, Frazer said.
The agreement can be viewed at the U.S. District Court on St. Croix and DPNR will be accepting written public comments until Dec. 27, Barnes said. On Jan. 12 in U.S. District Court on St. Croix, Judge Harvey Bartle III will hear any objections and decide whether to approve the settlement agreement.
At that point, DPNR and the two companies will have already started design and hydraulic studies, government attorney Jack Dema said. "That will take us probably six months into 2012," Dema said. Work on the site should start before the end of 2012, Dema said.
Full designs and plans are still being developed, but plans call for the mound to be sealed and covered with vegetation, to stabilize the area, prevent further erosion and stop water percolating through, Barns said during the conference call. The first step will be a hydraulic study, looking at how rain water flows through the area and where erosion is a problem, added Dema.
"The preliminary design draft envisions covering it with either a geological membrane or some other type of impermeable cover," Dema said. Water will be directed to a sediment collection basin that will slow the water and prevent it from carrying the red mud to the mangroves that line the shore, he said. Once ground cover is planted, "when you drive down the highway, you will no longer see the red pile," Dema said.
Costs will be borne by St. Croix Alumina and St. Croix Renaissance Group, Frazer said. "The project is certainly in excess of $10 million," Frazer said, when asked for a price tag. The cost includes not just the mitigation work, but ongoing maintenance and monitoring, Barnes said.