Gov. Gary Locke has approved a $300,000 appropriation from the Washington Legislature for a study of pollution in the Spokane River.
The money was included in the budget bill Locke signed this week. It will go to the attorney general’s office for an assessment of how badly the river has been damaged by a variety of sources, including heavy metals from mining pollution in Idaho.
It will also include a review of water quality in Lake Roosevelt, which recent studies say contains heavy metals and other industrial pollution.
The study may be a first step toward a Washington state lawsuit against the Idaho mining companies that dumped millions of tons of lead, cadmium and zinc into the Coeur d’Alene Basin.
It also could lead to a negotiated agreement to clean up the entire river basin in Idaho and Washington.
“We are going to continue to investigate, talk to the stakeholders and decide how to proceed,” said Assistant Attorney General Jay Manning.
The Spokane County Commission and Spokane Mayor Jack Geraghty supported the study in letters to Locke.
“The obvious need for additional monitoring stems from countless, peer-reviewed scientific evidence of lead and heavy metals contamination in Lake Coeur d’Alene, located just upstream of the Spokane River,” Geraghty said in his April 24 letter to the governor.
Locke’s action will “enable Washington to hold sources in Idaho liable” for toxic threats upstream, the commissioners said.
The Northwest Mining Association supports a new river study, but opposed the appropriation because it involved the attorney general’s office and therefore could lead to a new lawsuit. It hasn’t been proven that the mines are the major source of pollution in the Spokane River, the association contends.
“We need to look at all potential impacts on the river - nutrients as well as heavy metals,” said Laura Skaer, the mining association’s executive director.
Recent studies show heavy metals are present in the Spokane River, posing a threat to fish and aquatic life.
The heavy metals from Idaho aren’t a drinking water threat in Washington because most aren’t reaching the aquifer, said Stan Miller of Spokane County’s aquifer program.
Also, the river pollution doesn’t exceed drinking water standards for heavy metals. But there’s been no comprehensive study of how dangerous or widespread the pollution is.
A decision on a lawsuit will be made later this year. Before then, the state’s lawyers will talk with mining companies seeking to head off a new lawsuit, Manning said.
“They are interested in avoiding litigation, and we are, too,” he said.
The Clinton administration has already sued ASARCO, Hecla, Sunshine Mining and Refining Corp., and Coeur d’Alene Mines Corp., seeking to recover nearly $1 billion to clean up the Idaho side of the Coeur d’Alene Basin.
Locke asked the Washington Legislature to pay for the Spokane River study in his biennial budget request, said spokesman Chris Thompson.
“We know the Spokane River isn’t meeting some state water-quality standards, but we don’t know what the full impact is,” Thompson said.
The House cut Locke’s request out of the budget, but the Senate retained $600,000 for the study. In a recent conference committee, legislators compromised on $300,000.
“The governor is very interested in this. The $300,000 is considered sufficient to assess the resource damage and make a legal decision, ” Thompson said Thursday.
Locke’s budget request triggered a political battle. Mining lobbyists tried to get the appropriation killed, while Spokane’s mayor, county commissioners and a regional environmental group fought to keep it.
“We are very pleased with the governor and the Legislature. They have sent a strong signal that this isn’t just an Idaho issue,” said Michele Nanni of the Inland Empire Public Lands Council.
The council has lobbied for the Spokane River study as part of its “Get The Lead Out” campaign to reduce heavy metal dangers from a century of mining in Idaho.
The attorney general’s office in Spokane will be closely involved in the study, Manning said.
The first step is to do a literature search of all existing studies of the Spokane River and Lake Roosevelt. A Seattle consultant will help the attorney general’s office determine what additional studies are needed.
“When we get the report from our consultant in June, it will tell us what we don’t yet know,” Manning said.
His office could decide then whether to file a lawsuit, “but it’s more likely we’ll need to collect additional data. I just don’t know at this point,” he said. , DataTimes