Take 10 cutthroat trout. Put them in a tank containing water from the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River.
The fish will be dead in two days. That’s true even if only 15 percent of the water in the tank is from the South Fork, which is contaminated with mining-related metals.
That is among the first findings to come out of the Coeur d’Alene Basin Natural Resource Damage Assessment. The test results are being greeted with skepticism by the mining industry, and frustration among interested area residents.
“While the information that’s being handed out is more than welcome, we still have a long way to go,” said Mike Schlepp, chairman of the citizens’ committee concerned with restoration of the river basin.
Mike Fish, another committee member, compared the sketchy information released so far to “an outline without the chapters.”
The damage assessment won’t be complete for another year. It is a huge group of studies aimed at figuring out how much historic mining pollution continues to harm fish and wildlife, and what should be done to clean it up.
The federal government will use the information to present a cleanup bill to mining companies - in court, if necessary.
Industry spokeswoman Holly Houston questioned the validity of the test results.
For example, she said, it makes no sense that trout died in laboratory tanks when researchers found cutthroat living in the South Fork, source of the water.
“The laboratory data doesn’t really jibe with the real world here,” said Houston, executive director of the Mining Information office.
Fish might be surviving in the river because they can move in and out of the worst contamination, said Dan Audet of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He is field manager for the assessment project.
Fish can travel into sections of the South Fork containing less zinc, which is especially harmful to fish. Or they can turn the corner into the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene.
When fish in the lab were put in water from the North Fork, they all survived.
The laboratory study was done after researchers dangled boxes containing trout into the two rivers. The fish in the South Fork boxes kept dying, Audet said. The experiment was moved to the more easily controlled environment of the lab.
Study results are being released as soon as they are complete, federal officials said. One big question remaining to be answered is how many waterfowl are being harmed when they eat metals-tainted vegetation. Swans that die from swallowing lead are the best-known wildlife casualties of the mining pollution.
Results are being released as they became available because of high public interest in the issues.
Among other findings announced this month:
Trout populations are lowest near the biggest sources of metals, especially places where mine tailings were piled. There are few fish, and no native cutthroat, in the stretch of river that flows past the Bunker Hill smelter site at Kellogg.
A federal Superfund cleanup is under way at the smelter and surrounding 21 square miles. The Natural Resource Damage Assessment is required by the wildlife counterpart of the Superfund law, which focuses on human health.
Levels of zinc found in the water were up to 200 times higher than federal standards allow for the protection of cold water fish.
The worst spots were below Canyon Creek and Nine Mile Creek. In the main Coeur d’Alene River, the zinc levels were up to 130 times higher than the standard; in Lake Coeur d’Alene, up to 51 times higher.
There is a wide range of lead and zinc levels in the flood plane of the Coeur d’Alene River from Smelterville to Harrison. Of 187 soil samples, 52 percent had more than 1,500 parts per million of lead, the metal that is killing the swans.
No “safe” level of metals has been set for animals. However, the federal scientists said, upcoming study results should show how and where wildlife is being affected by the contamination.
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