Evidence of pollution in the Spokane River from mining has prompted Washington state officials to consider suing mining companies that do business in Idaho’s Silver Valley.
Gov. Gary Locke’s budget request includes $600,000 for the attorney general’s office to pursue a lawsuit on behalf of the Spokane River.
“Our knowledge about the releases of heavy metals into the Spokane River is growing,” said Jay Manning, an assistant attorney general. “People have known about a problem in the river for years.”
If the Legislature approves the money and the attorney general decides to go ahead with a suit, it would be the third filed against the mining companies.
A decision on whether to pursue legal action won’t be made until late April at the earliest, Manning said.
Under the federal Superfund law, states and other governmental bodies considered trustees of natural resources can sue for damages if Superfund cleanup is insufficient to protect or restore those natural resources. The action and process of calculating damages is called a Natural Resource Damage Assessment.
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe and, most recently, the federal government have sued several mining companies for environmental damages in the Coeur d’Alene River basin. Cleanup of the Bunker Hill Superfund site in Kellogg is continuing but does not address contamination outside the site.
The federal lawsuit accuses mining companies of releasing more than 72 million tons of mine and mill tailings into the Coeur d’Alene River and its tributaries.
Washington’s Department of Ecology is concerned that the metals aren’t all settling in Lake Coeur d’Alene but are washing downstream.
The federal lawsuit, filed last year, prompted Washington state to seriously consider filing its own lawsuit.
“It was decided in Washington that we needed to take a good hard look at the Spokane River to determine whether we should be taking similar action,” said Owen Clarke, an assistant attorney general in Spokane.
Although the state hasn’t named any defendants in the suit, the federal suit is against Asarco Inc., Hecla Mining Co., the Sunshine Mining Co., Coeur d’Alene Mines Corp. and several of their affiliates.
Washington state’s involvement makes perfect sense to John Osborne, director of the Inland Empire Public Lands Council, an environmental group pushing for aggressive cleanup of the basin.
“The toxic metals don’t stop at the Idaho line. They flow with the water into Washington state,” Osborne said. “It will be necessary for the state to protect its citizens and communities by addressing the matter.”
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment, a series of studies documenting the environmental damage from mining, could help Washington state’s case, said tribe press secretary Bob Bostwick.
“We have the knowledge pool. We know where this stuff is, we know where it’s going and we know how fast it’s moving,” Bostwick said. “If they have any sense of responsibility at all, they’ve got to take notice.”
Manning cited a Washington Department of Ecology study of Spokane River water quality as giving strong evidence of mining pollution in the river.
The study found that concentrations of lead and cadmium exceeded water quality standards during high water flows, and zinc exceeded the standards during all flows.
The study pointed to historical mining practices in Idaho as the culprit.
The Northwest Mining Association hired its own expert to review the study, and recently sent a letter to the state disputing the results.
“We don’t believe the conclusions…reached are backed by the sampling done in that report,” said the association’s executive director, Laura Skaer.
The letter also listed several other possible sources for the metals contamination.
A decision on the lawsuit is expected about the same time that Idaho’s Sen. Larry Craig plans to introduce his latest version of the Coeur d’Alene Basin clean-up bill. The bill is designed to render the lawsuits unnecessary.
Craig said Monday that if the basin inside Idaho is cleaned up, it should take care of the problem downstream.
“The politics of scare are not supported by science,” Craig said. “We have a problem that can practically and reasonably be taken care of.”