A century of mining in Idaho’s Silver Valley poisoned children and sent millions of tons of toxic wastes into Lake Coeur d’Alene.
Now, some of Idaho’s mining legacy is reaching Washington.
Lake sediments laced with lead, zinc and cadmium are being flushed into the Spokane River, gradually making their way downstream.
Nobody knows exactly how many tons have reached Washington because there’s been no comprehensive study.
But scientists do know the pollution is widespread - and could get worse.
Heavy metals from Idaho “have traveled all the way to the Columbia River,” said Michael Beckwith, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist in Sandpoint.
Regional floods are accelerating the problem, water quality experts say.
In February 1995, floodwaters carried 68 tons of lead into Lake Coeur d’Alene in one day - twice the normal amount flushed in over an entire year.
This year’s floods have washed “very large” new quantities of murky mine sludge into the lake, Beckwith said.
In March, shoreline drinking water systems flunked safety limits for lead for the first time in recent history, forcing some Idaho residents to treat their water.
The heavy metals in the 15 to 30 inches of ooze that covers the lake bottom aren’t a drinking water threat in Washington because most aren’t reaching the aquifer, said Stan Miller of Spokane County’s aquifer program.
But they are creating a surface water risk as far downstream as Lake Roosevelt, several studies show.
During high water season, dissolved lead in the Spokane River exceeds state safety standards for aquatic life, a recent Washington Department of Ecology report said.
“We aren’t seeing dead fish out there, but this is a cause for long-term concern and needs to be fixed,” said Carl Nuechterlein, Ecology’s water quality chief in Spokane.
According to Ecology’s report, “Cadmium, lead and zinc from historical mining practices in Idaho are considered to be the major reason for violation of Washington’s water quality criteria.”
Cleanup efforts in the Silver Valley aren’t likely to reduce the pollution for years, “and there is presently no way to predict” if Washington can enforce its surface water quality standards at the state line, the report says. Washington’s standards are more stringent than Idaho’s.
Idaho is trying to clean up the mining-polluted tributaries that flow into the regional river system, said Geoff Harvey of the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.
“Washington is entitled to water of high quality as it goes across the border, and we are moving towards that,” Harvey said.
The pollution problem is most evident behind Upriver Dam near Spokane’s Felts Field, where lead, cadmium and zinc in river sediments measure three times the levels considered safe for living organisms.
“The concentrations of these three metals are high enough to merit significant concern for the well-being of aquatic life,” says an environmental impact statement issued last month on a proposal to raise Upriver Dam.
The Washington Department of Health is concerned about lead levels in trout upstream of the dam, said Glen Patrick of the department’s office of toxic substances in Olympia.
But the problem isn’t a serious health risk because people can legally catch only one fish a day from the river. “The fish consumption from that area is going to be low,” Patrick said.
Long-term exposure to lead and cadmium can pose enormous dangers.
Chronic lead poisoning can damage red blood cells, kidneys and the central nervous system. Cadmium can damage the kidneys and liver, cause pulmonary emphysema and soften bones.
The metals aren’t a major threat to the Spokane aquifer because its water is so hard that lead and most other metals can’t dissolve in it easily, Miller said.
Traces of zinc from Idaho’s mines - the most soluble of the heavy metals - are being measured in the aquifer, but the levels are unlikely to increase and aren’t considered a health threat, Miller said.
Many more tons of heavy metals could move downstream under certain conditions.
However, Lake Coeur d’Alene probably won’t become so oxygen-starved that most of the mining sediments on the lake bottom would be released into the rivers, a USGS report concluded earlier this year.
If the lake were to lose oxygen, its chemistry would change and heavy metals trapped on the bottom could dissolve and move downstream.
Fine particles of heavy metals are now poised at the northern end of the lake where the Spokane River begins, said Beckwith of the USGS.
Regulators are discussing how to keep nutrients out of the lake to keep it healthy and avoid a catastrophic release of heavy metals.
Idaho’s two Republican senators, Larry Craig and Dirk Kempthorne, are proposing a new plan to clean up the Coeur d’Alene Basin.
Their legislation, now in Congress, would create a 13-member council to address the cleanup problems, with members appointed by Idaho’s governor.
It would guide cleanup outside the 21-square mile Bunker Hill Superfund site around Kellogg where the worst pollution occurred.
Craig’s bill is an effort to move ahead with cleanup but not drive jobs out of the region, said press secretary Bryan Wilkes. “It’s a thin line he’s trying to walk,” Wilkes said.
Environmentalists don’t like the plan. They say it would weaken current cleanup standards, absolve mining companies from additional financial liability for the mess, and ignore contamination downstream in Washington.
It also could derail a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit filed in March to recover damages for pollution outside the Superfund site from four of the mining companies responsible for the pollution, said Scott Brown of the Idaho Conservation League.
Craig calls the Clinton administration’s lawsuit “folly.”
“Litigation does not benefit the citizens affected by a cleanup,” Craig said in March when he introduced his Coeur d’Alene Basin cleanup bill.
The Inland Empire Public Lands Council, a Spokane-based environmental group, is asking Washington residents to support an alternative regional cleanup plan similar to the 1992 pact to clean up Chesapeake Bay.
That agreement was signed by the governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia and the mayor of Washington, D.C.
There are political hurdles to such an approach. Mining companies have consistently fought basin-wide cleanup.
Washington’s tough toxic cleanup standards also could be sacrificed to Idaho’s laxer standards, Miller said.
“A compact would only hurt us. The sediments Ecology is now saying are horrendous would probably be OK’d for baby food,” he quipped.
A comprehensive, basin-wide sampling program is needed to understand the heavy metals risk, Beckwith said.
“This year’s floods would have been a good opportunity to learn more, but nothing was done,” he said.