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Scientists To Help Make Aquifer Ruling

Six independent scientists will help the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decide whether ground water in a vast area of Eastern Washington and a sliver of North Idaho should be federally protected.

The EPA announced Thursday it is accepting nominations from several groups and agencies for the scientific panel.

Appointment of the panel will delay, once again, the aquifer decision until at least the end of the summer. Until this week, the EPA said the decision would be made by May.

But EPA officials say it’s worth it to get a scientific consensus on the controversial issue.

This is the first time the EPA has assembled a group of outside experts for a sole source aquifer decision, said Scott Downey of the agency’s office in Seattle.

The panel was the brainchild of Chuck Clarke, regional EPA director and the official who will ultimately make the sole source decision.

“Use of the panel is a very deliberate move on my part,” Clarke said.

“I want to show people that I am willing to consider conclusions made by outside scientists who have had no previous involvement with the EPA proposal.”

The proposal to designate ground water in the Eastern Columbia Plateau aquifer system as the sole source of drinking water for nearly 300,000 people has been controversial.

Proponents say the federal designation would protect the region’s ground water, which in some areas already shows signs of contamination.

Opponents say it’s regulatory overkill because the state already protects the water, and scientists haven’t proven it’s one interconnected system.

In a public comment period that closed Feb. 17, the EPA was “roundly criticized” for some of its interpretations, including the system’s boundaries and the degree of connection between aquifers, Downey said.

An EPA headquarters committee, not the agency’s Seattle office, will select the panelists.

Nominations will come from the U.S. Geological Survey, the Washington Department of Ecology, the anti-aquifer Northwest Council of Governments and Associates, the Washington Farm Bureau and two environmental groups favoring designation, the Washington Environmental Council and the PalouseClearwater Environmental Institute.

The Palouse institute filed the original petition with the EPA in 1993, asking for the designation.

No one with a vested interest or financial link to the outcome of the decision will be appointed to the panel, Downey said.

That will rule out several scientists whose work has already been submitted to EPA including a paid consultant for the Northwest Council, a six-county group of elected officials formed to fight the designation.

The no-vested-interest rule also eliminates consultants for Waste Management Inc., the garbage company proposing a regional landfill over the aquifer in Adams County.

It also would rule out consultants for the environmental groups, said Tom Lamar of the Palouse institute.

“We want independent voices, not scientists who are being paid to come to a conclusion,” Downey said.