Kootenai County commissioners were partially right - and a lot wrong - last week when they sided with a major polluter against the Panhandle Health District.
In warning the district to back off Hern Ironworks, commissioners correctly contended no one wants the Coeur d’Alene foundry to go bankrupt, now that bullheaded owner John Hern is complying with public health standards.
Hern Ironworks has spawned 30 small businesses, 150 jobs - and more than $1 million in annual income. Each day, it recycles five tons of scrap iron that otherwise would consume valuable landfill space.
But county commissioners were dead wrong to accuse health officials of “vindictive retaliation and personal agendas” against Hern and to threaten to cut the district’s funding. They’re also wrong to circulate a letter to other North Idaho commissioners, airing their grievance against the health district.
The Panhandle Health District is important to Kootenai County - more so even than Hern’s small businesses and jobs. Not only does it protect North Idaho from blatant polluters, but also it provides a variety of health services for a low investment.
On the environmental side, PHD oversees sewage systems and septic tanks; inspects restaurants, drinking-water systems, swimming pools and day-care facilities; combats communicable disease; reviews subdivision proposals; checks for radon; and helps prepare management plans to protect water quality in Idaho’s prized lakes.
Unfortunately, the district is vulnerable to the Kootenai County commissioners’ blackmail.
PHD officials leverage money provided by the five northern counties to attract contracts and federal grants. The $444,000 budgeted by Kootenai County for public health this year brought a return to the county of $4.8 million.
Rather than attack the health district, commissioners should realize Hern brought his troubles on himself. For a decade, he refused to cooperate with health officials while violating dozens of building, zoning, health and environmental codes - codes Commissioners Dick Compton and Ron Rankin recently swore to uphold.
Why are the commissioners bullying an agency for doing its job? We hope it has nothing to do with Hern’s campaign contributions to Compton (a total of $900) and Rankin ($100). Or the fact that Rankin attends church with him.
In November, 1st District Judge Craig Kosonen vindicated the health district’s pursuit of Hern. The judge fined Hern $495,000, one of the largest environmental penalties ever assessed in the Pacific Northwest. At the time, health officials wanted only to recoup legal expenses and payment for the time they had spent trying to rein Hern in.
That doesn’t sound like a vendetta.
, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = D.F. Oliveria/For the editorial board