The Idaho Board of Health and Welfare voted Thursday to allow more zinc, lead and cadmium in the Coeur d’Alene River basin, a move several groups said is premature.
These metals are found naturally in the area, although a century of mining has boosted their presence in the river.
Getting rid of the metals involves cleaning up polluted dirt in the Smelterville Flats and along miles of stream in Burke Canyon.
In a 4-1 vote, the board approved the state Division of Environmental Quality’s temporary rule that sets water-quality standards based on the assumption that fish are adapting to the level of pollution in the upper river around Mullan.
The new standard for metal levels, which takes effect March 1, applies not only to the South Fork, but the entire river basin. Mining companies will not be required to filter as much out of water going downstream as under the old rules.
The state DEQ and the Idaho Conservation League asked the board to postpone its vote because they haven’t had time to study the effects. The groups also questioned whether the standards should apply to the entire river.
Mark Shumar, DEQ’s senior water quality analyst, said the board’s decision isn’t final and that members have until the 1999 legislative session to make changes.
Shumar said adopting the rule was critical because the state missed its Jan. 1 deadline for submitting water quality standards to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
The deadline is a result of a lawsuit filed against the EPA by the Idaho Conservation League. The lawsuit complained that the EPA wasn’t making the state comply with the federal Clean Water Act.
On Thursday, the EPA and the ICL pleaded the same case in asking the board to postpone its decision.
“If someone is going to be sued it’s the EPA,” state Director Lynn McKee said about the consequences of missing the deadline. “It’s worth that risk to have a credible water standard.”
Scott Brown of the ICL agreed.
“We are more interested in getting a product that is responsible and implementable,” Brown said.
The Coeur d’ Alene Tribe and the Inland Empire Public Lands Council also opposed the quick decision.
“I just don’t think they’ve taken enough time to look at the problem,” Tribal Chairman Ernie Stensgar said Wednesday, before the board made its decision.
Board members agreed that reconsidering the lead, zinc and cadmium standards wasn’t a problem.
“We can make adjustments before the permanent rule,” board member Robert Barlow told the EPA.
But both McKee and Brown questioned the reality of the offer.
“It’s not good public policy to adopt a temporary standard that has so many questions in it,” McKee said.
The rule allows for higher levels of lead, zinc and cadmium in the river than EPA standards. But federal law allows states to set site-specific standards that reflect an area’s unique composition, such as the Silver Valley’s high natural metal content.
After 100 years of exposure to lead, zinc and cadmium, fish have adapted to the high metal levels, Shumar said.
“The site-specific process reflects those kind of differences,” he said.
A study, which DEQ based its standards on, showed that the Westslope cutthroat trout is most sensitive to cadmium and zinc while the mayfly and snail are affected mostly by lead.
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