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MISSOULA - The operators of a closed phosphorous plant near Butte will plead guilty to illegally storing phosphorous waste at the plant and have agreed to pay fines and restitution of more than $18 million, a federal prosecutor said Wednesday.

U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer said Rhodia Inc., based in Cranbury, N.J., had agreed to plead guilty to a string of federal charges accusing the company of storing extremely flammable phosphorous waste without the proper permits.

Company representatives were to appear in U.S. District Court in Missoula Wednesday afternoon to formally enter the plea, Mercer said. An attorney for the company signed a plea agreement dated Dec. 18.

The agreement stems from an investigation in 2000 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality that found improperly stored phosphorous at the plan west of Butte.

Investigators said they found a leaking clarifier tank holding sludge with concentrations of phosphorous so high that the sludge would burn if exposed to air. Investigators also found flammable bricks contaminated with high levels of phosphorous and other chemicals.

Officials with the company in Butte and Cranbury did not immediately returns phone calls seeking comment Wednesday.

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