After three false starts, the state of Idaho and Coeur d’Alene Tribe reached agreement this summer on managing a century’s worth of mining pollution at the bottom of Lake Coeur d’Alene.
The long-awaited plan is intended to keep the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from stepping in with a Superfund remedy for 83 million tons of lake mud tainted with heavy metals. Taking action to protect Lake Coeur d’Alene’s water quality will keep the metals capped at the lake bottom, the plan says.
But the 160-page plan lacks support from a key constituency: boards of commissioners in Kootenai, Benewah and Shoshone counties aren’t endorsing it.
A six-page letter, sent by the three counties to the tribe and the state, says the plan amounts to too much study and not enough action on water quality.
Internal documents from the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality also indicate that commissioners have questions about the tribe’s role in future lake management. According to a memo written by a DEQ employee, the counties fear the lake plan could increase the tribe’s ability to impose rules on non-Indians. The records were obtained through a public records request.
“Keep in mind that you have someone from DEQ taking minutes,” said Rick Currie, chairman of the Kootenai County board of commissioners. “I don’t want to make any more comments … The last thing we need is controversy … We’re trying to work through our differences with the state and the tribe.”
But DEQ documents over a six-month period refer to counties’ concerns and distrust of the tribe, which owns the southern third of Lake Coeur d’Alene.
During meetings with the three counties this summer, Dan Redline, the DEQ’s regional administrator in Coeur d’Alene, recorded commissioners’ talking points in his notebook: “In general, the state is too accommodating to tribal interests” reads one note. “More comfortable with EPA running a (Superfund) cleanup action than relying on the tribe,” Redline’s notes also said.
The notes also include items about funding. The lake plan, as proposed, would cost $1.2 million a year – money that would come from state, federal and tribal sources.
In December, Gwen Fransen, a DEQ scientist working on the lake plan, sent an e-mail to Redline and other DEQ co-workers, with notes from a meeting with Kootenai and Shoshone county commissioners, and Jack Buell, chairman of the Benewah County board of commissioners.
“They perceived the (lake management plan) will increase the Tribe’s authority over non-Indians,” Fransen wrote.
Fransen’s memo said Buell gave several examples of difficulties his constituents have had in working with tribal officials. “They remain convinced this (lake management plan) will give the Tribe more power and they don’t want to agree to anything that does that.”
As a result of that meeting, the DEQ sent its deputy director to Coeur d’Alene to meet with commissioners.
Curt Fransen (Gwen Fransen’s husband) is an attorney versed in jurisdictional issues related to the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s lake ownership, which the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in 2001. He was in Coeur d’Alene “to specifically address concerns regarding Tribal authorities expressed by the counties,” according to a letter signed by DEQ Director Toni Hardesty. Curt Fransen hoped to meet with commissioners from all three counties, but only Kootenai County commissioners were present.
Nothing in the lake plan gives the tribe additional authority, state and tribal officials said.
“There’s no new regulations in this plan. It looks at how the current regulations are working,” said Marc Stewart, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s public relations director, who had not seen the minutes and memos. “If you don’t have new regulations, how can you have more authority?”
The tribe is committed to developing a local plan, which community members said they preferred to EPA action, Stewart said. “It’s a ridiculous notion that the tribe’s doing anything underhanded,” he said.
The current plan is the result of 18 months of negotiation between the state and the tribe. After three efforts at drafting local lake management plans failed, the EPA paid for a mediator.
The DEQ and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe wrote the plan because the two entities are responsible for making sure the lake meets federal Clean Water Act standards, said Glen Rothrock, DEQ coordinator for the lake management plan.
Sherry Krulitz, chairwoman of the Shoshone County board of commissioners, attended at least one of the summer meetings where Redline took notes. She said she can’t recall the conversation, but cautioned against drawing conclusions from his brief notes, which she said may lack important context. But Krulitz said she does worry about finding annual funding for the plan, especially in the current economic climate.
Benewah County’s Buell said the tribe’s management of the lake was discussed, but not in a derogatory way. “You’re looking at questions on jurisdictions,” he said.
Buell said the counties wanted to know more about which government entities manage various aspects of the plan, which covers the entire Coeur d’Alene basin. The plan focuses on reducing phosphorus, nitrogen and other nutrients flowing into the lake, because they fertilize algae blooms and other plant growth. As the plants decay, the water’s dissolved oxygen levels go down. That disrupts the chemical process that keeps the metals on the lake bottom.
“I don’t have any doubt that everyone wants to make the lake better. We’re in harmony on that,” Buell said.
But the counties wanted to be included in negotiations, he said.
Public meetings would have been a better bet, added Jon Cantamessa, a Shoshone County commissioner. “The lake belongs to everyone,” he said.
County commissioners also said they were baffled by a three-year study in the plan to track the sources of nutrients that come into the lake. Work by the U.S. Geological Survey indicates that the Coeur d’Alene and St. Joe rivers contribute 80 percent of the nutrients.
Commissioners said the plan should focus on fixing eroding river banks, which contribute nitrogen and phosphorus to the lake.
“What we hear is that our process has been exclusionary. This is simply not the case,” said DEQ’s Gwen Fransen.
Regular meetings were held to keep counties in the loop, she said.
State officials also said that fixing eroding river banks is a priority in the plan, and that work will begin right away. However, managing nutrients in the lake requires precise knowledge, beyond even the most recent USGS study, Rothrock said. Other sources beside erosion are contributing nutrients to the rivers, he said.
In addition, a waterfront subdivision with leaky septic tanks might contribute small amounts of nutrients to the lake’s overall load, Rothrock said. But the leaks could create significant water quality problems in a sheltered bay, he said.