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Posted: 8:56 AM- A federal judge has largely sided with U.S. Magnesium, a company that concentrates magnesium from the Great Salt Lake, in its $1 billion legal fight with the EPA over hazardous waste.
But neither side is claiming victory yet - a hint that there may be more tussling ahead over how some hazardous wastes are handled at the site.
In addition, a few loose ends remain in the case that began nearly seven years ago, when EPA went to court to force the company to take greater care with hazardous waste it produces when it transforms salty lake brine into magnesium metal alloys that are used to strengthen steel.
The federal government contends the company should comply with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the nation's cradle-to-grave hazardous-materials-handling law, with that process waste to protect the health of workers and the environment. But the company has insisted from the start that Congress exempted their processing waste from that law.
Benson's decision largely validated the company's view. His Oct. 15 ruling noted in several places that, if EPA wanted to stop USMag from dumping the controversial wastes in outside ditches, it should have put a stop to the practice in the regulations developed nearly 20 years ago.
He also hinted that EPA could have tried to revoke the exemption, based on information that has surfaced over the years.
The EPA wouldn't say whether it might now try to reign in USMag's practices administratively or whether it might otherwise fight the ruling. But Andrew Lensink, an enforcement attorney for EPA's Denver region, indicated the case is not over.
One reason is that Benson did not rule on a part of the agency's case that deals with cancer-causing PCB's, which also have been found in excessive amounts in the USMag waste stream. In addition, the agency continues to be concerned about the company's waste practices.
"EPA is very disappointed with this decision," said Lensink, "particularly because the Great Salt Lake is in an area of great ecological importance. We will continue our efforts to to bring this facility in compliance with the environmental laws to fully protect humans and the environment."
USMag also remains cautious.
"We're pleased with the judges' decision," said Tom Tripp, technical services manager for the company. "It appears to be fairly thorough and well reasoned "We're in the process of evaluating what the implications of that decision are."
USMag is the only remaining primary magnesium producer in North America, and it has struggled mightily to remain viable in a market increasingly dominated by China. About 400 people work at the company, which operates the processing plant 23 miles northwest of Grantsville.
Besides PCB's, hexochlorobenzene was one of EPA's concerns. HCB, a cancer-causing by-product of the processing plant, was once produced as a poison but has been banned for more than three decades.
The EPA agrees that some of the by-products are exempt from the hazardous and toxic waste laws - but not all of them.