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EPA hands off Superfund tailings to Idaho

  BOISE, Idaho - In a deal hailed as a first nationwide, the Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to let Idaho environmental authorities take the lead in cleaning up old mine tailings in Triumph, near Sun Valley.


The question is, will the state be any more successful than the EPA in devising a cleanup plan for the town's 1 million tons of mine wastes that contain high levels of arsenic and lead.


In the 27-page memorandum of agreement, the EPA hinted that it might also drop Triumph from the Superfund list of sites considered most in need of cleanup. That's what Triumph's 50 residents wanted all along - to get off the proposed list and boot the EPA out of town (HCN, 9/20/93).


"We agree that there's some reasonable housekeeping kinds of things that should be done, but this site is not a national priority," says long-time Triumph activist Donna Rose, an art dealer. "This should be such a clean, easy project; it should be a one-summer project."


Rose suggests that the "potentially responsible parties' - the Idaho Department of Lands, ASARCO Minerals Inc. and Triumph Minerals - should cap the 40 acres of old mine tailings with clay or clean dirt and "make a golf course out of it."


The state and ASARCO hope to clean up the site for less than $10 million, a far cry from early EPA estimates that exceeded $100 million.


The EPA has not backed off from its earlier assessment of danger. Agency officials maintain that Triumph's score of 90.3 - the highest hazardous ranking affixed to any Superfund site in the nation - was accurate.


The EPA also asserts that some residential yards should be dug up to reduce the potential exposure of young children playing outside to arsenic and leaded soils. While Idaho Health authorities do not plan to force any yard excavations on residents, they will offer to remove contaminated soil. They also believe fences and signs should be erected to warn people of potential health dangers.


"In some places, there are high enough arsenic readings for an acute and significant exposure event," says Steve West, a Health Division expert.


West says the state has a higher responsibility to the public at-large - people who might wander into the area without knowing of the danger - and there may be ways to install signs or fences in an "aesthetically pleasing" manner.


Donna Rose says there's no reason to discuss signs and fences. "The EPA tried to do that and we ran them out of town," she says.


The community and the EPA probably will never agree on the issue of health dangers. Blood-lead and urine-arsenic screenings for the last three years have not shown any alarming levels in adults or children. The tests have shown slightly elevated levels of arsenic in a few people, causing concern among EPA and state Health Division officials. Residents say they're not worried. People, including 1994 Olympic ski champion Picabo Street, have grown up in Triumph near mine tailings, without a single known case of cancer.


Under the new agreement, the EPA can take back responsiblity from the state if it does not like the results.


Nevertheless, for the EPA to try to turn the Triumph site over to state authorities was a major coup. Rose credits Idaho Rep. Mike Crapo's chief of staff, John Hoehne, with doing much of the leg work.


Rose is hopeful residents of Triumph and the state can agree on an acceptable cleanup plan, even if they disagree on health risks. A final plan may be ready by late 1995, and the tailings could be capped by 1996.


And then, Rose says, she's ready to do battle with the EPA full time as a community environmental consultant. "These people are out of control, and we, the taxpayers, are paying them to do it," she says. "I never would have believed this could happen if I hadn't lived it."





* Stephen Stuebner





Stephen Stuebner writes in Boise, Idaho.