The state of Idaho is proposing water-quality standards that would allow Hecla Mining Co. to discharge more heavy metals into the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River.
Four years ago, the state, federal government and Hecla Mining agreed to come up with special water-quality standards for the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River.
That agreement recently resulted in state-sanctioned standards that the Environmental Protection Agency is poised to reject.
While the state recently adopted a temporary rule that establishes new, more lenient standards on the South Fork, the standards have not been submitted to the EPA for approval under the Clean Water Act provisions. The state missed its deadline of Dec. 31, 1997.
The new state standards increase the allowable concentration of lead 268 times over federal standards. The South Fork already is lead-laden from historic mining operations. The proposed state standard could mean even higher concentrations of lead, according to the EPA.
The state’s standards are the basis of a plan that places limits on the amount of contaminants mining companies, wastewater treatment plants and others can discharge into the river.
Under the state’s proposed plan, Hecla could discharge about five times more zinc than it does now, said Bill Riley, EPA’s regional coordinator for discharge permits. That amount of zinc discharge could be prevented by 20-year-old technology, according to the EPA.
Zinc is toxic to fish, but poses no health threat to humans. Hecla said the new rules won’t prompt the company to increase what it discharges into the river.
Meanwhile, the state’s plan calls for the Bunker Hill Superfund Site’s wastewater treatment plant to significantly decrease its toxic discharges to the river.
EPA wrote to the Idaho Division of Environmental Quality that the inequity between what mining companies and Bunker Hill would be allowed to dump in the river “raises a number of serious concerns.”
The state DEQ justifies its temporary water quality rules and the proposed pollution limits (called Total Maximum Daily Loads, or TMDLs) with a study that shows that fish can survive in the Mullan area of the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River, below Hecla’s Lucky Friday Mine. The new standards are based on metal concentrations in those parts of the river.
DEQ’s Geoff Harvey said the federal standards, developed in a laboratory in Georgia, are impractical for the South Fork.
“We have exceedance of (federal standards) in the very headwaters of the stream,” Harvey said. “The intake of the Lucky Friday mill exceeds the lead criteria and it doesn’t have any mining on it.”
The state’s attempt to come up with site-specific rules for the South Fork originated because of a dispute between Hecla and the EPA over Hecla’s discharge permit, Harvey said. According to Hecla, however, the dispute was between EPA and the state.
“This question between the state and the EPA needed to be resolved,” said Matt Fein of Hecla. “The question was what water quality standards were applicable to the river there.”
Hecla is still operating under an outdated 1977 discharge permit.
The three parties signed a letter of agreement in 1993 that said the state would develop site-specific criteria for the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River.
“Hecla, EPA and DEQ share the common goal of maintaining levels of water quality which are supportive of (fish) in the South Fork Coeur d’Alene River above Canyon Creek,” the letter reads.
The state initially didn’t have any money to pursue the site-specific studies, however, so Hecla Mining helped lobby the Idaho Legislature to come up with the necessary funds, Harvey said.
That’s brought criticism from environmental quarters that the criteria were developed primarily for Hecla’s benefit.
“Hecla Mining has a close relationship with the state of Idaho through the Legislature and through DEQ,” charged Michelle Nanni of the Lands Council. “Idaho used taxpayers’ money to complete these studies.”
The mining company made no attempt to skew the results, Fein said.
“We didn’t go to the state and say, ‘Do this, do that’,” Fein said. “The state said, ‘We don’t want your money. We’ll just fund it from the Legislature.”’
Harvey said DEQ made its intentions clear all along that it just wanted more reasonable water quality standards for the entire South Fork - standards that recognize that the river will never be pristine.
Still, critics say the standards are still too lax even by those guidelines.
“The tribe all along has stated that there’s far more things going on than living and dying,” said Phil Cernera, the coordinator of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. “That fish could be in that system, but it could be severely impaired. … Do we want to set standards for just the survivors, or do we want all the fish?”
While the state, EPA, tribe and environmental groups argue over the science behind the new water quality limits, the clock is ticking past the court-ordered deadline for federal Clean Water Act approval.
The new standards were supposed to be in place by March 1, according to a federal Clean Water Act lawsuit brought by the Idaho Conservation League.
“If anyone challenges the fact that the schedule hasn’t been met, no doubt EPA will be back in court,” said EPA’s Leigh Woodruff.
The Conservation League said it’s willing to give the EPA a little more time.
“Idaho has made it very difficult for EPA to meet the schedule on this,” said Scott Brown, the league’s state issues director. “We’re more interested in getting good (load limits) done. … The writing is on the wall that the EPA is going to have to write the TMDL.”
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: DEADLINE The new water quality standards were supposed to be in place by March 1, according to a federal Clean Water Act lawsuit brought by the Idaho Conservation League.