The first cleanup plan for North Idaho’s polluted waterways will be released today at the inaugural meeting of the governor-appointed Coeur d’Alene River Basin Commission.
But the proposed action is, essentially, no action.
The draft plan for Lake Coeur d’Alene and the Spokane River, written by the state Division of Environmental Quality, sets total maximum daily load (TMDL) limits on metals released from the Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls wastewater treatment plants.
The plan is one of dozens the state is expected to release in the next eight years to address the 962 stream segments listed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as having pollution problems.
“If this is any indication of things to come, the state of Idaho is going to go down in flames in court because this is outrageous,” said Scott Brown of the Idaho Conservation League. “It does nothing to reduce pollution from sewage treatment plants and storm drainage.”
The plan doesn’t change anything for at least two years after its approval. It calls only for monitoring at the treatment plants until progress is made on upstream cleanup jobs. The only source of pollution it proposes to control are the wastewater treatment systems for Coeur d’Alene, Post Falls and Hayden.
“The lake and river always exceed the criteria for zinc threefold, but the solutions to that are not in the lake and river but in the Silver Valley,” said Geoff Harvey of the Division of Environmental Quality.
Another TMDL plan for the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River is supposed to address the metals upstream, but it hasn’t been released yet.
Brown is skeptical that it will go far enough. The state has suggested in one draft document that the limit for zinc in the South Fork still would exceed federal standards by several times.
Zinc is particularly harmful to fish. High levels found downstream in Washington state have prompted more studies and talk of the state joining natural resource damage litigation against upstream mining companies.
During flooding, the amount of heavy metals - including lead - washing downstream increases substantially.
Recent measurements by the U.S. Geological Survey found that during this spring’s heavy runoff the Spokane River had 30 times more zinc and 26 times more lead than an unpolluted river.
Mining operations aren’t the only contributors to heavy metal pollution in the river, however. On a normal day, the Coeur d’Alene wastewater treatment plant is a significant contributor of zinc, and a small amount of lead.
According to 1995 and 1996 measurements of the plant’s discharge, the average amount of zinc - 87 micrograms per liter - was just below the average level in the lake and river - 88 micrograms per liter.
Once the background levels in the river decrease, the wastewater treatment plant will be expected to decrease its output of zinc.
“We’re not going to expect the point discharges along the river to be part of the solution unless they’re part of the problem,” Harvey said. “But once we are successful in the Silver Valley and the levels start to decrease in the lake and river, we’ll expect (them) to keep pace.”
Brown calls the approach “passing the buck,” but Sid Fredrickson, the supervisor of Coeur d’Alene’s treatment plant, says it’s reasonable.
“It makes a lot of sense, and what we’re hoping is that the EPA will concur with that approach,” Fredrickson said. He added that his department is trying to find the source of zinc coming into the plant.
The wastewater plant now has no limits for metals in its federal discharge permit. The DEQ’s plan would establish limits based on what the plant is discharging now.
Post Falls and Hayden would be required to start gathering data on the metals in their effluent, since no monitoring is done now.
The 11-member Coeur d’Alene River Basin Commission was created by lawmakers last session to mirror a provision in a federal basin cleanup bill that’s being pushed by U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.
The commission was formed specifically to tackle the metals problem. Other pollution in the basin will be handled by another committee.
Today’s meeting is from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game office in Coeur d’Alene.