The lone tundra swan swam in a channel beside the river road. It pitched slowly, awkwardly forward.
“See it gasping?” asked biologist Dan Audet. Lead poisoning had ruined the bird’s digestive system, he said. Its graceful neck was clogged with food.
The swan struggled onto shore. Before long, researchers would stuff it into a garbage sack.
The fact that those body bags pile up a dozen at a time is, for some people, the most compelling evidence of mining pollution in the Coeur d’Alene River Basin.
But there’s much more environmental damage, said Dick Pedersen of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He called the deaths of the big, beautiful birds “just an indication of a really sick ecosystem.”
How sick? The Natural Resource Damage Assessment aims to find out.
Pedersen is one of several managers for the huge research project, which is required by the same federal law that includes Superfund.
Superfund - which guides cleanup in and around Kellogg’s Bunker Hill smelter complex - focuses on human health and safety.
The assessment looks at the effect of pollution on fish and wildlife and human uses of those resources. It extends from upstream tributaries of the Coeur d’Alene River, west through the lower river and into Lake Coeur d’Alene.
Once they learn how much damage there is, scientists will decide which cleanup methods to recommend, which are most important and what they’ll cost.
A final report is due in about two years. It will be used to seek cleanup money from companies being held responsible for the pollution.
The assessment is being done by the Interior Department. The U.S. Forest Service also is involved, as is the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.
The tribe already has filed suit, seeking payment from eight mining companies and a railroad that used the valley. The federal government will sue as well if the companies don’t settle out of court.
While the lawyers meet, researchers do their own thing.
Field work began in earnest in 1993, and should be nearly done by the end of the year.
There are about 30 different studies. Some focus on waterfowl, which often gulp tainted sediment with the water plants they eat.
Although dead swans have been found for years, this is the first year a grid-section approach has been used to spot them. Biologists drive along the waterways with binoculars in hand, looking for drooping birds. They use kayaks and hovercraft to retrieve carcasses before they’re found by eagles or other predators.
Other studies look at plants, sediment and fish.
Botanists are looking at which plants grow in and near the water. The vegetation is analyzed for metals content.
In the first large-scale testing of sediment, 900 samples will be taken along the lower river and lakes.
Insects have been sieved from the river, turned into pellets and fed to young fish to test the effect of metals. Radio transmitters were inserted in chinook salmon to find out which parts of the river they use for spawning.
This summer, researchers will set up flumes in the river where the South Fork flows into the larger North Fork. The flumes will direct water from the South Fork, which carries a lot more metals, and from the North Fork; the scientists want to see how often fish avoid the polluted water.
“Now that I think about it, ‘flume avoidance’ studies have been going on here for years and years,” said Forest Service manager Bill Putnam.
He grew up in Kellogg and remembers how anglers walked over the bridge to reach the North Fork. They knew more fish would be there.
In addition to poisoning animals, historic mining practices destroyed their habitat.
Some plants used by animals for food and shelter refuse to grow in metals-laden soil. Trees that kept water cool for fish were scoured away by mine tailings washed downstream.
There are signs the river system is healing. In the 1930s, a researcher couldn’t find a single fish between Wallace and Lake Coeur d’Alene. Now there are trout in most places, although their numbers are low.
But it’s wrong to think the system will heal completely by itself, said Audet. For one thing, the number of dead swans is not dropping.
“We don’t believe the system will flush itself out,” said Phil Cernera, project manager for the Coeur d’Alene tribe. “It’s better than it was when they were directly discharging (mine wastes) into the river, but it’s not healthy.”
Because of pending lawsuits, the project managers won’t say yet how much the assessment is costing taxpayers. They insist that it’s a tiny amount compared to the ultimate cleanup price. They said anyone who really wants to know the price can file a request through the federal Freedom of Information Act.
The secrecy and expenditure of “umpteen millions” of tax dollars bothers Holly Houston, executive director of the Coeur d’Alene Basin Mining Information Office.
“The information they got by using taxpayer money, they can then turn around and sue the companies for.”
The companies challenge the tribe’s right to be involved in the assessment. And some people aren’t convinced that any more research is needed.
“There are 1,200 studies already,” said Houston. “When do we actually go do the work?”
Pedersen contends the damage assessment is necessary. It’s downright speedy compared to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund process, he said.
“We’re not trying to rake anyone over the coals,” Pedersen said. “We want to restore the basin.”
Last of two parts.