Idaho’s congressional delegation is lambasting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to clean up historic mining waste in the Coeur d’Alene River’s headwaters.
“Bloated” was how delegation members described the $1.3 billion plan with a list of projects that could take up to 100 years to complete.
The EPA’s proposal would leave a “Superfund” stigma hanging over Idaho’s Silver Valley for the next three generations, tainting the local tourism industry and potentially harming the region’s remaining silver mines, they said.
“EPA proposes a massive undertaking on a scale that is hardly imaginable, possibly without precedent, and with no realistic way to pay for it,” said U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.
The criticism was levied in a joint statement also issued by U.S. Sen. Jim Risch and Reps. Walt Minnick and Mike Simpson.
Simpson is a ranking member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and the Environment, which funds the EPA.
He predicted that Congress would reject the current plan and urged the EPA to build consensus in North Idaho around “a workable path forward.”
Regional EPA officials, meanwhile, said the 2,200-page plan is a realistic look at the decades of work needed to make the Upper Coeur d’Alene Basin safe for people and wildlife.
More than 300 old mine sites – an average of one per square mile – continue to leach lead, arsenic and other heavy metals into the Coeur d’Alene River’s headwaters.
Stretches of some tributaries are too toxic to support fish. During flooding, the metals wash downstream into Lake Coeur d’Alene.
Polluted sediments along the beaches and floodplains also pose risks to people and wildlife, according to the EPA.
“We believe it’s appropriate for EPA to come up with a blueprint for cleanup in the upper basin so the community and EPA understand the extent of the work,” Anne Daily, an EPA program manager, said in an earlier interview. “It helps us wisely spend the mo? ney on projects that will have the most benefit and limit the use of taxpayer money.”
Part of the cleanup money would come from the $447 million Asarco trust fund, created to pay for the mining company’s environmental liabilities in the Coeur d’Alene Basin. At spending levels of $25 million per year, the cleanup work is expected to generate 425 new jobs in the Silver Valley.
But the plan faced hostile crowds at public hearings in the Silver Valley last summer. Local residents and politicians said it was too big and too costly.
Hecla Mining Co., which operates the Lucky Friday Mine in Mullan, Idaho, also opposes it. Hecla is the last major company that hasn’t settled its historic pollution claims with the federal government. In earlier litigation, a federal judge ruled that Hecla was responsible for 31 percent of the historic mine tailings dumped in the Coeur d’Alene Basin.
The company employs about 350 workers at the Lucky Friday Mine.
A public comment period on the proposal ended Tuesday. EPA officials said they will review the comments and respond in writing to the issues raised.