January 27, 2010 in Idaho

Superfund outcry grows louder

National groups join local plea to relocate Bunker Hill mining waste
By The Spokesman-Review
Kathy Plonka photo

Barbara Miller of the Silver Valley Community Resource Center stands outside the East Mission Flats Repository near Cataldo, Idaho, on Tuesday. Her group would like the waste being deposited there from Superfund cleanup to be moved out of the community.kathypl@spokesman.com
(Full-size photo)

More than 70 grass-roots groups from around the nation have joined Silver Valley activists in asking the Obama administration for new ways of dealing with pollution from cleanup of the Bunker Hill Superfund site in North Idaho.

Storing mining waste in repositories that need perpetual maintenance is a “quick and dirty” solution, but not a good one for community health, Lois Gibbs, executive director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice in Falls Church, Va., wrote in a letter to top Superfund officials.

Gibbs is the activist who led the drive to relocate families from Love Canal, N.Y., after a waste dump leaked toxic chemicals in their neighborhood during the 1970s. She founded the center, which works with grass-roots groups across the country on Superfund cleanup sites.

Gibbs was contacted by Barbara Miller, who heads the Silver Valley Community Resource Center. Miller’s group opposes a waste repository that the Environmental Protection Agency opened last year near Old Mission State Park. The repository will house 40,000 truckloads of dirt tainted with lead, arsenic and other heavy metals.

“It was a misguided decision to excavate lead waste and just take it to a repository in the same regional community,” Gibbs said in the letter, which is addressed to Mathy Stanislaus, President Barack Obama’s senior appointee to the EPA on Superfund issues.

“We want EPA to make this a national priority,” said Anne Rabe, the Center for Health, Environment and Justice’s campaign coordinator. “It ranks right up there as being one worst examples of what’s wrong with Superfund.”

The letter asks for permanent removal of mine waste from the area. It also seeks more blood-lead testing of Silver Valley children, lower thresholds for federal cleanup of heavy metals, and a local clinic for the prevention and diagnosis of lead exposure. The letter was signed by grass-roots groups that work on community and environmental health issues.

Stanislaus visited the Silver Valley last August as part of a federal review of the East Mission Flats repository. He later said the repository’s design was protective of groundwater. The repository lies within the Coeur d’Alene River’s flood plain, in an area that regularly floods.

The Silver Valley is already home to several repositories, with more in the planning stages. Over the next 25 years, Superfund cleanup is expected to generate 600,000 truckloads of waste. The Bunker Hill Superfund complex is one of the nation’s largest Superfund sites, spanning roughly 1,500 square miles.

“We’ve considered many different options for waste disposal, including shipping it off site,” said Angela Chung, the EPA’s Bunker Hill Superfund team leader. However, “we have decided that we can safely manage it within.”

Moving the dirt to other communities creates problems, Chung added. Those communities don’t want the disposal sites, either, she said.

Jon Cantamessa, chairman of Shoshone County’s board of commissioners, said most of the residents he’s talked to support the East Mission Flats repository. Much of the waste will come from removing lead-tainted soil from residential yards. By containing pollution, the repositories reduce people’s exposure to heavy metals, he said.

“Barbara (Miller) would love to have you take that material somewhere else, but I don’t know where you would put it,” he said.

Cantamessa also characterized the letter’s tone as inflammatory. “We’re not cheerleaders for EPA,” he said. “There’s a problem with heavy metals pollution, but we think it’s being dealt with pretty well.”

Cantamessa noted that blood-lead levels for Silver Valley children – once among the nation’s highest – have dropped dramatically since the EPA started removing polluted soil from yards. The levels are now near national averages.

But Miller said the testing program, which relies on families’ volunteer participation, doesn’t test enough kids to give accurate results. With lead, there is no safe exposure limit, Miller said. Even small doses can affect intelligence, behavior and development.

“You can walk into one of the nation’s largest Superfund sites, and you will not see any education about health and lead exposure,” she said. “We need a community clinic.”

Miller said she hopes the letter will prompt a return visit from Stanislaus, with additional community meetings. The EPA’s Chung said the agency will craft a formal response to the letter.

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