Who'll clean up a mining mess?

  • Coeur d'Alene Basin

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • EPA's Robert Martin is investigating contamination - Jesse Tinsley/Spokesma


Idaho wrangles with the feds over a Superfund site

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho - For years, a handful of locals in Northern Idaho have grumbled that federal cleanup efforts were botched and that Bunker Hill, the largest Superfund site in the country, was still unsafe after 20 years. Now, the cleanup is supposed to wind down (HCN, 11/25/96: Pollution in paradise), but some say the job is far from finished.

Recent studies show that lead contamination has spread from lead and silver mines in the Silver Valley, down the Coeur d'Alene and Spokane rivers and throughout the entire 1,500 square-mile Coeur d'Alene River Basin.

Over 16 percent of children tested in the area show above-average lead levels. Beaches along some rivers are posted with signs warning of lead poisoning, which can depress intelligence, cause hyperactivity and result in memory loss. This summer, Spokane, Wash., health officials warned children and pregnant women not to eat fish from the river.

Now the Environmental Protection Agency wants to expand its cleanup of the 21-square-mile Bunker Hill site to include the entire Coeur d'Alene Basin. Idaho politicians say they want the EPA out of Idaho and cleanup responsibility transferred to local governments. But local activists worry that if the state takes over, cleanup will never be complete.

The man in the middle

In the middle of the debate is Robert Martin, the EPA's only national ombudsman. The ombudsman's office gets thousands of citizen complaints about EPA wrongdoing every year. Few receive full-blown investigations.

Although the ombudsman's recommendations are nonbinding, they carry clout: In 1992, Martin's team of investigators led the EPA to reverse plans to cap radioactive waste at the Shattuck site in Denver.

In February 1999, the Silver Valley People's Action Coalition, a small and often maligned band of local residents, asked the ombudsman to review Bunker Hill. Last April, Martin agreed, and locals and coalition members were thrilled.

"We feel more confidence that we will be heard," said coalition founder Barbara Miller. The citizens' group has been critical of all aspects of the EPA's cleanup; it says plans to remedy recontamination of yards have failed and that groundwater continues to leach toxic metals from mine waste stored on site.

Then in June, at the request of Idaho's entire congressional delegation, Martin decided to review claims that the scope of future EPA cleanup efforts in the valley is unwarranted and too costly. Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and the rest of Idaho's delegation are openly critical of the EPA and call the Superfund program a waste of taxpayers' dollars. Miller worries that if the state takes over, nothing will ever be accomplished.

"Without the EPA we stand very little hope of getting anything done in the way of cleanup," says Miller. "State agencies and politicians have known for years that contamination was continuing and they haven't done anything."

The Coeur d'Alene Tribe can attest to that. Currently involved in several lawsuits related to mining pollution of the river, the tribe says the state underestimates the amount of money needed to get the job done. According to experts hired by the tribe, cleanup of the entire region could cost as much as $3.8 billion. The state predicts cleanup will cost roughly $478 million.

Federal officials say that, based on the history of the region, they doubt the state can pull it off.

"Let's be real here," says Chuck Clarke, the EPA's regional director. "The contamination has gone on for 50 or 100 years, and we haven't seen a lot of cleanup go on without us."

The home front disagrees

But state officials and industry groups insist that cleanup will only work if it is implemented by those who understand the region: local government officials. According to Idaho Republicans, it is the presence of the federal government that has stalled cleanup efforts.

"The EPA has been involved in this for years and there has been millions of dollars spent," says Susan Wheeler, spokeswoman for Republican Sen. Crapo. The senator is concerned that "when Superfund is involved, most of the money goes toward litigation and as a result, cleanup efforts suffer," she says.

As an alternative, the state says it should be in charge of cleanup while using up to $200 million in federal Superfund money. The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality wants to create a locally based board, which would include a county commissioner from each of the three affected counties, to be in charge of basin cleanup. DEQ director Steve Allred says this will help achieve community consensus.

"The continued economic vitality of the region is a huge part of this," says Kate Kelley of Idaho DEQ.

Local industry groups and mining companies agree that transferring cleanup to local hands is the responsible thing to do: Local businessmen say the stigma of Superfund cleanup kills tourism, and the county is a poor one.

"Lake Coeur d'Alene is known worldwide not only for the resort and the golf course but because it is so scenic," says Bret Bowers, executive director of Community Leaders for EPA Accountability Now, an industry group. "When Superfund is mentioned in the same breath with the lake, it creates an untrue perception of what's occurring here."

Currently, EPA ombudsman Martin is holding public hearings in Spokane and elsewhere in the basin. He plans to make preliminary recommendations to regional and top EPA officials by the end of the year. Some environmental activists say that Martin will be unable to make an objective decision in the face of all of the political pressure coming from the Idaho delegation.

Martin, a soft-spoken man who is careful with his words, bristles at the suggestion.

"I don't feel that, to be frank, the ombudsman's office is in the pocket of the Idaho delegation," says Martin. "Not everyone will get what they want."

Zaz Hollander is a reporter for the Idaho Spokesman-Review. She is also a former HCN intern. Rebecca Clarren is an HCN assistant editor.


  • Robert Martin, EPA ombudsman: 800/262-7937;
  • Barbara Miller, Silver Valley People's Action Coalition: 208/784-8891;
  • Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, Boise: 208/373-0240.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Zaz Hollander

High Country News Classifieds