Idaho Gov. Phil Batt is asking the federal government not to sue mining companies over damage to wildlife in the Coeur d’Alene River basin.
Past mining practices contaminated the basin with lead, zinc, cadmium and other metals. The problem is dramatized each spring when swans die from lead poisoning after stopping to feed along the river.
Last fall, federal and industry lawyers struck a truce of sorts, agreeing to try for an out-of-court agreement over how much industry should pay to clean up the basin. But they failed. The truce will end March 22.
In a March 8 letter to Attorney General Janet Reno, Batt insisted that a lawsuit would be premature.
He argued that:
Money spent on lawyers wouldn’t be available for cleanup.
The region’s few remaining mines would be threatened because of those costs.
A suit would stifle voluntary cleanup efforts now under way.
Negotiations were stalled because the federal government won’t release the results of studies documenting how much harm has been done to wildlife.
“The United States and the (Coeur d’Alene) Tribe apparently believe the data will support federal and tribal natural resource damage awards in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” Batt wrote.
“The state of Idaho is skeptical.”
For more than a year, industry representatives have complained that much information was being withheld.
A federal attorney and scientists involved in the Coeur d’Alene Basin Natural Resource Damage Assessment could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But in the past, they have insisted that information is released as soon as it has been reviewed for accuracy.
Holly Houston, spokeswoman for several mining companies, said the governor’s letter “could only help us.” She noted that Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, plans to introduce federal legislation aimed at resolving the cleanup debate.
However, Scott Brown of the Idaho Conservation League criticized Batt for putting the interests of industry above those of natural resources.
Despite the governor’s agreement with industry on key points, the state hasn’t taken sides in the cleanup dispute, according to Geoff Harvey of the state Division of Environmental Quality. One reason for that, he said, is that it’s been impossible to get federal research findings that show damage to any species but swans.
“It’s very hard for the state to take a position when we don’t have enough information,” he said.
The federal government and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe are trustees for the natural resources of the basin. That means they represent the interests of any non-human victims of the metals contamination.
The basin covers 1,500 square miles in North Idaho, and the fish and wildlife damage may have extended far into Washington because metals have been carried downstream through the Spokane River.
The natural resource issues being debated are separate from the human health concerns that prompted the establishment of the 21-square-mile Bunker Hill Superfund site.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Map of area.