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Aquifer Protection A Top Priority

John Hern Jr. has 495,000 reasons to remember that most of us in Spokane and Kootenai counties live above a giant aquifer that provides our drinking water.

Last week, a judge fined the Coeur d’Alene man nearly a half million dollars for ignoring health hazards at his iron foundry. For years, Hern permitted bathroom sewage to drain directly into the ground, refused to store dangerous chemicals properly and stonewalled county and health officials.

Hern, owner of Hern Ironworks, was the second Kootenai County man this month to push his misguided notion of private property rights too far. Earlier, Alden Arveson was jailed for stockpiling old cars, trailers, machinery, scrap metal and other junk on his property, creating a health hazard and an eyesore.

Both men believed they weren’t hurting anybody.

Both men were dead wrong.

By ignoring county and health rules for at least a decade, Hern and Arveson spawned hazards that threatened the region’s precious lifeline, the Rathdrum Aquifer. No one has a right to do that. If anything, the law moved too slowly in bringing these two to justice.

Unfortunately, Hern and Arveson aren’t the only ones to pose a threat to the aquifer - just the most notorious. Daily, the region’s underground river is threatened in hundreds of small ways in dozens of different places.

In Kootenai County, health officials believe there are as many as 100 seemingly innocuous places where antifreeze, oil, grease and heavy metals are piped directly toward the aquifer via dry wells. The culprits include floor drains in automotive shops, printing establishments and bus garages.

Last spring, the city of Coeur d’Alene found high levels of a cancer-causing chemical in a city well. No one knows how it got there. More recently, Kootenai County had four incidents of coliform contamination involving local water systems.

Groundwater contamination in Washington state is a growing concern, too.

Yet, in 1995, Kootenai County commissioners allowed machine shops to be built over the aquifer without requiring sewer hookup - and were sued by a planning commissioner. Then, a Twin Lakes developer almost was permitted to build a mammoth drainage field near the aquifer.

Aquifer protection should be a top priority in Spokane and Kootenai counties. Those who threaten the aquifer threaten all of us.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = D.F. Oliveria/For the editorial board