March 9, 1998 in Nation/World

Epa Needs To Use Finesse, Fine Brush

By The Spokesman-Review

Coeur d’Alene Mayor Steve Judy reacted predictably to the Environmental Protection Agency’s move to expand its probe of mining contamination to Lake Coeur d’Alene and his town. He lambasted the action as “Big Brother government” and sought relief from Idaho’s congressional delegation.

Some claim Judy overreacted, drawing a parallel between the fictional Mayor Vaughn of Amity and him. Remember? In the original “Jaws,” Vaughn refused at first to close the beaches when confronted with the possibility that a great white shark was snacking off shore. He was afraid to scare off the tourists.

Coeur d’Alene, of course, isn’t Amity. And any parallel between Mayor Vaughn and Coeur d’Alene’s new mayor ends with their concern for community image and tourism. Judy - with strong backing from Gov. Phil Batt, U.S. Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, R-Idaho, and U.S. Rep. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho - is serving his community well by demanding that the EPA explain the meaning of its surprise action.

That’s not to say there isn’t a problem in the Coeur d’Alene Basin, which for the purpose of the proposed EPA study stretches from Mullan, near the Montana-Idaho state line, to Long Lake.

Hot spots of metal contamination have been documented. But the EPA should be cautious not to make a bigger mess for Inland Northwest residents than the one it’s trying to clean up.

Already this winter, EPA zealots have created an image problem locally by adding Spokane to the short list of the nation’s worst carbon monoxide polluters. This, despite great strides made by the city to reduce infrequent violations and legitimate questions about the location of one monitor. The EPA action effectively lumped Spokane with some of the nation’s worst air polluters: Los Angeles, Denver, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

In its latest move, EPA didn’t inspire confidence by excluding North Idaho officials from the discussions that led to the surprise announcement.

At this point, EPA Administrator Carol Browner needs to spell out exactly what her agency intends to do.

After meeting with Browner last week, Sen. Kempthorne asked her to take three important - and reasonable - steps: issue a public statement clarifying that the entire Coeur d’Alene Basin isn’t considered a superfund site; invite interested persons to help decide if more remedial action is needed in the basin; and invite public comments.

The EPA can perform a valuable service by studying the entire Coeur d’Alene Basin, if it resists the bureaucratic urge to paint with a broad brush. The region relies on the Coeur d’Alene Basin for recreation.

It needs an outside, independent agency to investigate water quality and pull together information from other studies.

Currently, however, there’s no evidence that Lake Coeur d’Alene and the Spokane River pose a threat to human health. EPA officials shouldn’t sound the alarm to clear the shoreline until they’re sure a problem is lurking in the water.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = D.F. Oliveria/For the editorial board

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