COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho - It's hard to imagine that an issue as sprawling and contentious as the effort to clean up a century of mining waste in the Coeur d'Alene River Basin could fit into a glass of water (HCN, 3/4/02: EPA wants to supersize Idaho Superfund site). But that's the image that came walking into a press conference at the Coeur d'Alene Resort on Aug. 13, with a husky waiter and a tray of goblets.
EPA administrator Christie Whitman, senators and representatives, tribal chairmen and state officials had gathered in a seventh-floor banquet room to toast the signing of an agreement on how to run the imminent cleanup. With strained smiles, they hoisted glasses of water that, according to Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, R, had just been dipped out of the lake that twinkled below. Business leaders beamed and told everyone within earshot that Lake Coeur d'Alene is so pristine you can drink from it.
Well, depends who you talk to.
"Let's put it this way, people who have had giardia wouldn't be doing that," says Rob Eachon, senior environmental health specialist with the Panhandle Health District in Coeur d'Alene. Giardia is a microbe prolific in lakes and streams that causes stomach upset and explosive diarrhea.
Nonetheless, the media stunt was a telling introduction to a controversial new commission that gives locals unprecedented control over one of the nation's largest Superfund cleanups.
Just as the water in the wine glasses was indeed crystal clear, the Coeur d'Alene Basin is largely postcard-pretty - from the steep canyons of the Silver Valley mining district, down the winding North Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River and to the lake itself. But this pretty picture contains toxins that are not terribly visible - lead, cadmium, nickel and zinc. The heavy metals are inhaled in airborne dust in houses and yards in the Silver Valley, they permeate riverbanks and spread - at an estimated 75 million tons - across the bottom of Lake Coeur d'Alene.
And now the same people who tempt fate by drinking unfiltered, untreated lake water just because it looks clean hold half the votes on the new commission created by Idaho politicians to administer the $360 million EPA cleanup.
"This commission puts the cleanup back in the hands of the polluters and the special interests," says Barbara Miller of the Silver Valley People's Action Coalition, a group that has fought for recognition and medical help for three generations of local children with abnormally high blood lead levels.
Avoiding the "S-word"
"There is no need for Superfund action on the lake," Whitman said, after signing off on the five-seat, four-vote Basin Environmental Improvement Project Commission.
On the commission, local politicians from the three north Idaho counties in the basin - where business powers care more for tourism than toxins - share one vote. The state of Idaho, whose leaders have been critical of - and even openly hostile toward - the EPA, gets one vote. The third vote goes to the federal government, represented by EPA Region 10 Director John Iani. The state of Washington, worried about metals flowing out of the lake and creating "hot spots" in the Spokane River, was granted a seat at the table but no vote. The fourth vote goes to the Coeur d'Alene Tribe.
The tribe fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, winning a decision in June 2001 that grants it ownership of part of the lake. A driving force behind the court fight was a desire to gain a stronger role in the Lake Coeur d'Alene cleanup, says Howard Funke, attorney for the tribe - especially since the other parties involved refuse to admit the lake is part of the expanded Superfund site, even as they scramble to have it "delisted."
Out near the city beach, just before the press conference, Gov. Kempthorne beamed. "Let me make this crystal clear - as crystal clear as this water is - that this has never been a Superfund site and it never should be.
"There is a stigma to Superfund. We all remember Love Canal," he said later, during a strolling, sidewalk interview. "Tourism is our fourth-biggest industry. We need to promote the area," not give people second thoughts about visiting.
Others look a little deeper. The heavy metals at the lake bottom tend to remain in the sediment, but can liquefy if oxygen levels drop. If all goes as planned, a lake management plan will address these issues and the Superfund status will be dropped. The tribe helped create the plan in 1996, but it's never been funded and is now being revised. Whitman promised $2 million to help it get going.
The commission has its first meeting Sept. 10. "We've all agreed to come into the same room, even though there's still a bit of dysfunction with "My chair is higher than your chair' kind of thing," Funke says. If the management plan does not aggressively address steps to control nutrient loading, metals monitoring and get a commitment for long-term funding, he said, "the tribe will not sign off on delisting."
What does it mean to be clean?
But back at the resort, pristine was the mantra of the day, chanted by Kempthorne, Whitman, Sens. Larry Craig and Mike Crapo and Rep. Butch Otter. "This lake is clean and getting cleaner," Whitman said. "Lake Coeur d'Alene meets all standards for being drinkable, fishable, swimmable."
Actually, "to meet drinking-water standards, state rules - and EPA rules - require it be filtered or treated for microbiological contaminants," says Steve Tanner, drinking-water supervisor for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, "because you just can't control that risk factor."
So the water at the press conference * did it really come from the lake?
"Absolutely," says Jerry Jaeger, vice president of Hagadone Hospitality. "We pulled it from right off the boardwalk," which encloses a marina behind the resort. Then he adds, "To be absolutely honest, to make sure it wasn't going to backfire on us, we went out and tried it the day before."
Nobody wants backfire.
In an elevator after the press conference, a jocular Sen. Craig raised his eyebrows in mock alarm and said, "I hope we don't all go rushing to the hospital this afternoon."
Kevin Taylor reports for the Spokane, Wash., Spokesman-Review.