The suit seeks monetary damages for the alleged discharge of more than 70 million tons of mining waste into the basin over the last 100 years.
Each year, lead poisoning kills dozens of swans in wetlands scattered around the 1,500-square-mile basin. The findings from an ongoing federal-tribal study show that dozens of other wildlife species in the basin have also been contaminated, and that sediments at the bottom of Lake Coeur d'Alene are laced with lead, zinc, cadmium and other metals.
"It is critical that those who damage our environment with years of mining activity - not the American taxpayers - pay the cleanup costs," said Assistant Attorney General Lois J. Schiffer. The suit filed March 22 targeted ASARCO Inc., Hecla Mining Co. Inc., Sunshine Mining Co. Inc., Coeur d'Alene Mines Corp. and four affiliated companies.
Republican Idaho Gov. Phil Batt told Attorney General Janet Reno that legal action would only waste time and money, a position shared by the mining companies.
But Scott Brown of the Idaho Conservation League says time is running out; he has reviewed stacks of reports documenting wildlife damage at the offices of the Coeur d'Alene tribe, which has also sued the mining companies over the pollution.
Meanwhile, Idaho Republican Sens. Larry Craig and Dirk Kempthorne have introduced legislation that, if passed, could thwart the lawsuit. The bill would give the governor power to establish the terms of a settlement with the mining companies. In return, the companies would be granted full release from liability for all activities undertaken prior to enactment of the legislation.
* Paul Larmer,
HCN associate editor