As water percolates through old mine workings in the headwaters of the Coeur d’Alene River, it picks up lead, arsenic, zinc and other heavy metals.
The metals stunt fish populations in 66 miles of the river and its tributaries, with some stretches too toxic to support aquatic life. They also pose potential health risks for people who swim or float down the river, or recreate along the shore, government officials said.
But cleaning up a century’s worth of mining pollution in the upper Coeur d’Alene Basin won’t be easy or cheap. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants to expand Superfund cleanup activity in 300 square miles of the upper basin. The work would cost $1.3 billion over the next 50 to 100 years.
Earlier Superfund work focused on removing polluted soils from people’s yards, lowering the risk of children’s lead exposure. The next phase of cleanup activity would shift to water quality in the basin.
EPA officials said the work will make the Silver Valley a safer place for both people and wildlife, and reduce the volume of heavy metals flowing into Lake Coeur d’Alene. But the plan faced a skeptical and sometimes hostile crowd Wednesday night at a public hearing in Kellogg.
Some questioned the price tag and time frame.
“It’s bureaucratic arrogance to assume that a government agency will still exist 50 years from now,” said Wallace resident David Sherman, noting that government is always evolving.
Some people said the 2,200-page plan needs a longer public comment period than the current 45 days. Others wondered if the plan would pose hardships for active mines in the Silver Valley.
“I’ve not read anything that gives me comfort, as a miner, that mining will be considered a legitimate use,” said Mike Dexter, general manager of the Lucky Friday Mine in Mullan.
Hecla Mining Co., which operates the Lucky Friday, is the last major company that hasn’t settled its historic pollution claims with the federal government. Talks are ongoing, both parties said.
In prior litigation, a federal judge ruled that Hecla was responsible for 31 percent of historic mine tailings discharged in the Coeur d’Alene Basin. The company recently spent $10 million to fix problems at its Lucky Friday tailings ponds, where metals discharges were exceeding permit limits.
EPA officials said they expect mining to continue in the Silver Valley and don’t anticipate that the proposal would create new regulations. But Hecla, which employs 350 people at the Lucky Friday and plans to expand, still has questions about how the proposal would affect future mining, said Phil Baker, the company’s CEO.
The EPA’s 2002 record of decision charted Superfund activity for the upper Coeur d’Alene Basin, where most of the historic mining activity occurred. Agency officials said the new proposal amends the earlier decision, incorporating new studies to protect water quality.
“We believe it’s appropriate for EPA to come up with a blueprint for cleanup in the upper basin so the community and EPA understands the extent of the work,” said Anne Daily, an EPA program manager. “It helps us wisely spend the money on projects that will have the most benefit and limit the use of taxpayer money.”
A $500 million settlement with Asarco last year would help pay for the cleanup work. At a spending level of $25 million per year, the cleanup would produce about 425 new jobs in the Silver Valley, said Bill Adams, an EPA program manager.
Over the past century, the Silver Valley produced more than 1 billion ounces of silver, along with tons of lead, zinc and other industrial minerals. But pollution controls were lax in early years. Until 1968, companies dumped tailings – the ground-up rock left over after most of the minerals are extracted – directly into the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River and its tributaries.
The upper basin also has about 340 old mine sites that leach heavy metals into streams and groundwater.
“The hazards posed by mining waste are not hypothetical or potential future risks,” the National Remedy Review Board wrote in an assessment of the EPA’s proposed amendment.
Since 1981, lead exposure has been documented in 27 wildlife species, including beavers, screech owls, field mice, wood ducks and robins. People are also at risk from polluted water and soil, the report said.
Arsenic, a carcinogen, shows up in some private drinking wells in the Silver Valley. Children can consume arsenic and cadmium in homegrown vegetables, the report said.
The $1.3 billion cleanup proposal would excavate or cap mine tailings and waste-rock sites. In other areas, parts of creeks would be lined to prevent clean surface water from mixing with polluted groundwater. The EPA also proposes piping pockets of contaminated groundwater to the Central Treatment Plant in Kellogg, which already serves the Bunker Hill Mine.
The EPA’s Adams said the water piped to the treatment plant would represent 7 percent of the low flows in the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River. But the pipeline raises concerns for state Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle. Natural waterways are part of the Silver Valley’s scenic beauty, she said.
“How does lowering the amount of water in the stream improve habitat for fish?” she said.
Broadsword said she’s also concerned about how much matching money the state of Idaho would have to put up for the Superfund work. She is part of a loose coalition called Citizens for a Prosperous Silver Valley that’s asking the EPA to extend the 45-day comment period beyond Aug. 25.
“I would like to see them slow the process down and give us all more time to be comfortable with whatever plans moves forward,” Broadsword said.
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe, a longtime advocate of basin cleanup, is supporting the plan. Since February 2009, 21 meetings – all open to the public – have been held on the plan, said Marc Stewart, a spokesman for the tribe.
“It’s not perfect,” he said. “However, the tribe believes it’s time to get to work and start cleaning up the Silver Valley.”