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Mined-over region resents EPA scrutiny

 

For 15 years, the Environmental Protection Agency has removed mine tailings, covered contaminated lawns and monitored people's blood for lead and other dangerous heavy metals found within the 21-mile-long Bunker Hill Superfund Site in northern Idaho.

Now, with the work nearly done, the federal agency has set its sights on something much bigger - the entire Coeur d'Alene River basin, which covers 1,500 square miles.

In late February, the agency announced that it would use its authority under the Superfund law to conduct a two-year-long assessment of mining pollution in the basin, with the intent of developing a comprehensive cleanup plan. Federal scientists estimate that 130 years of mining has left the basin contaminated with 75 million tons of mining wastes laced with heavy metals (HCN, 11/25/96).

"We've known for years that the Bunker Hill site is just a box sitting in the middle of a severely contaminated basin," says Michael Gearheard, the EPA's associate regional director of Superfund cleanups in the Pacific Northwest. "Now that we have a relatively clean box, we don't want to step away without tackling the larger problem."

The announcement drew praise from environmentalists, but local and state officials slammed it.

"Lake Coeur d'Alene is not a Love Canal," Coeur d'Alene mayor Steve Judy told the Spokane, Wash., Spokesman-Review. "We do not need the stigma of a Superfund Site. We cannot afford it."

Lake Coeur d'Alene lies some 50 miles below the Superfund site, and has become a major recreation and tourist destination. Judy said the appearance of warning signs on the lake's beaches would devastate the area's economy.

Idaho Gov. Phil Batt, U.S. Rep. Michael Crapo and U.S. Sen. Dirk Kempthorne have also taken up the cry, urging EPA director Carol Browner to refrain from doing anything that would hurt the local economy.

In response, EPA officials have said they never intended to create a new mega-Superfund site, but simply want to use the authority of the federal law to create a cleanup plan for the entire basin.

"I understand the negative public perception about a Superfund site," says the EPA's Gearheard, "but contamination is what we are talking about here, and Superfund has some of the tools to move us toward a solution."

Mining pollution upstream of the Bunker Hill Site will recontaminate the area if left unaddressed, he says, and downstream, mine tailings will continue to poison the biologically rich lower Coeur d'Alene River and Lake Coeur d'Alene.

The four remaining mining companies in the basin, which have been sued by both the Coeur d'Alene Tribe and the federal government for cleanup funds, view EPA's initiative as a waste of time and money and a diversion from ongoing negotiations. The EPA has brought in a mediator to find common ground between the parties and the local communities. The lawsuits against the companies claim that nearly $1 billion is needed to clean up the basin.

"The companies think mediation is the way to go," says Holly Houston, director of the Coeur d'Alene Basin Mining Information Office. "We were shocked to hear that EPA was going ahead with its assessment under Superfund."

Houston says history shows that Superfund is a bureaucratic black hole. "The EPA told people that the assessment for Bunker Hill would cost $1.5 million and take two years," she says. "It ended up costing $15 million and taking 9 years. People are a little gun-shy."

But EPA officials and environmentalists say a new process is needed because negotiations with the mining companies have yielded little. "We decided that instead of working behind the closed doors of litigation we would open up the process," says Gearheard.

Some environmentalists blame the mining companies for the lack of progress.

"The companies have maintained for years that the federal government needs to own up to its part in the pollution, because it supported mining without environmental protections during the war (World War II) years," says Scott Brown of the Idaho Conservation League. "Now we have the EPA stepping up to the plate with federal resources and the companies are singing a different song. I find that irresponsible."

The Superfund law is not the only federal statute driving the cleanup. Two years ago, environmentalists sued the EPA and Idaho for failing to identify and develop cleanup plans for streams and rivers in the state as called for in the Clean Water Act. A federal judge ruled the state had 962 bodies of water which failed to meet federal water-quality standards. Three of them lie within the Coeur d'Alene Basin: the Coeur d'Alene River, Lake Coeur d'Alene and the Spokane River.

The EPA was supposed to have completed cleanup plans for the rivers by March of this year, but now Gearheard says his agency hopes to use the basin-wide initiative to meet the requirements of both the Clean Water Act and the Superfund law.

Paul Larmer is HCN's senior editor.

You can contact ...

* The Coeur d'Alene Basin Mining Information Office at 208/769-7607;

* The Idaho Conservation League at 208/345-6933.