Sen. Gordon Crow’s new version of legislation to clean up mining contamination in the Coeur d’Alene basin leaves out conservation groups, but Crow said Wednesday their representation isn’t needed.
“It depends how you define conservationist,” he said, pointing to his bill’s list of who should serve on a new commission to oversee the cleanup.
“One representative of the governor - that could be a conservationist. A representative of the Division of Environmental Quality - I would say that’s the pre-eminent conservationist division within government.”
Over the objections of environmental groups, Crow’s bill cleared the Senate Resources and Environment Committee Wednesday, and stepped onto a fast track toward passage before the end of the session.
The bill was sought by U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, because it will mirror his proposed federal legislation seeking funding for basin cleanup.
“It is hoped that this will encourage Congress to provide the funds necessary for the cleanup,” Larry Koenig of the DEQ told the committee.
But the legislation creates a new commission to oversee cleanup, replacing an existing system of citizen commissions already established by the DEQ. The existing groups include environmentalists, along with local residents, agency people, industry representatives, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and more.
Mike Medberry of the Idaho Conservation League said, “Sen. Craig should structure his legislation to help local Idahoans, rather than demanding we restructure ours to suit his national agenda.”
Medberry said the new commission should have “at least a seat or two for conservation interests.”
Mark Solomon, executive director of the Inland Empire Public Lands Council, said the legislation doesn’t account for concerns from the state of Washington, which receives the heavy metal pollution as it washes down the Spokane River.
“There are people who live in this basin, people who live on both sides of the state line,” he said. “There will be Washington state involvement in anything that comes out of Congress. Their delegation is just as interested in this issue as ours.”
The legislation is the product of meetings between Craig staff members, the governor’s office, the attorney general’s office, Crow and committee chairman Sen. Laird Noh, R-Kimberly.
Noh pulled back the original version of the bill and replaced it with a new version that calls for legislative oversight of the process.
Crow said he met with Craig’s office three weeks ago to discuss concerns that Craig’s legislation would let mining companies off the hook for cleanup through a “release of liability” clause. State officials feared that would mean the state would be stuck with liability for millions in cleanup costs.
“They heard,” Crow said. “They are in the process definitely of amending that out.”
Freeman Duncan, the attorney general’s legislative liaison, told the committee that references in the bill’s “statement of purpose” citing Craig’s federal legislation were deleted because of the concerns.
Jim Yost, a top aide to Gov. Phil Batt, said Batt wants to “get some things done on the ground,” and hopes the new commission can function like the existing Silver Valley Trustees, who have completed cleanup projects along tributaries to the Coeur d’Alene River.
The commission would only address heavy metal problems, leaving all other issues in the watershed to the existing DEQ citizen committees, Yost said.
“I think the commission can go to work and do some things,” Yost told the committee. “There are three sites we’re looking at for demonstration projects.”
Crow said, “The fact of the matter is all these good groups working up there have accomplished little or nothing. This legislation is intended to put some money right into cleanup, not to lawyers, not to studies.”
After the bill cleared the committee on a 9-3 vote, Crow said, “We were expecting the attack from the environmental groups.”
Scott Brown, of the ICL’s Coeur d’Alene office, responded with a list of Crow’s $1,300 in mining industry campaign contributions in the past year. Crow formerly worked as a mining industry spokesman.
“Someone should remind Mr. Crow that he is a senator now and is supposed to represent all the people,” Brown said.