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Plan for CdA Basin cleanup gets 7,000 comments

Thu., March 3, 2011

Federal officials are wading through nearly 7,000 public comments on a controversial plan to clean up mine waste in the upper Coeur d’Alene Basin.

So far, actions proposed for the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River have drawn the most reaction. Residents question both the cost and the look of installing liners and French drains along a 10-mile stretch of the river through Idaho’s Silver Valley. The work would be visible from Interstate 90.

The $300 million proposal is an “aggressive plan” intended to stop highly polluted groundwater from mixing with cleaner surface water in the South Fork, said Cami Grandinetti, a Superfund manager for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Heavy metals in the groundwater are toxic to fish, she said.

Public concerns about the cost and complications are “all fair points that we clearly understand,” Grandinetti said.

EPA managers have been talking with other agencies and local residents about other possible alternatives for protecting the river, Grandinetti said.

But it’s too soon to say whether the EPA will scrap, keep or amend the South Fork plan, she said Wednesday. That decision will be made this fall, when the EPA unveils its final cleanup plan for the basin.

More than 300 old mine and mill sites are located in the upper basin. Heavy metals leaching from the old workings stunt fish populations in 66 miles of the Coeur d’Alene River and its tributaries.

Last summer, the EPA released a $1.3 billion plan for cleaning up contaminated sites over the next 50 to 100 years. The cleanup will make the area safer for people and wildlife, while improving downstream water quality, according to the EPA.

Work proposed for the South Fork totals about $450 million, Grandinetti said. But other parts of the South Fork’s cleanup – such as removing polluted sediment from the river – haven’t generated as much controversy, she said.

The sheer size and long timeline for the proposed upper basin cleanup were also a common theme in public comments received by the EPA.

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