Since the late 19th century, mining has contributed richly to the economic health of North Idaho. But its legacy for the region’s physical and environmental health has been decidedly harmful.
Years of tunneling into the mountainous Panhandle to get at its silver, lead, zinc and other minerals freed them to be washed into streams and lakes, deposited on flood plains and mounded near smelting operations as tailings. As a consequence of those innocent but disastrous historic practices, downstream populations suffered and the mining region became one of the nation’s earliest and largest Superfund sites.
Congress enacted the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act – or Superfund law – in 1980, and since 1983, the Environmental Protection Agency has been encamped in North Idaho, overseeing costly efforts to clean up the mining-related residue now recognized as a severe hazard to human health and wildlife habitat. And later this year, the agency is expected to announce a plan that could extend its work another 50 to 90 years.
As Republican Sen. Jim Risch has put it, “That is three generations of Idahoans who will live and work under EPA control, without any guarantee it would end there.”
The lengthy time span and a projected $1.3 billion price tag (in the Superfund law’s first five years, taxes it imposed on polluters collected only $1.6 billion) arise from a proposed plan the EPA released for public consideration last summer. After collecting thousands of reactions and recommendations, EPA officials now say the final plan will not be the same as that one.
But what will the revised version look like?
Clearly the EPA is not going to turn its back on the unfinished work, nor would any responsible resident of the region want that. At the same time, the notion that the agency might extend its lease for close to another century is troubling. Rather than establish itself here as a federal occupation force, the EPA should approach the job in bite-size segments, giving itself reasonable intervals to evaluate whether its projections have been accurate and its methods have been successful.
EPA regulators have insisted mining and cleanup can coexist and that they are as eager as the region’s residents to finish the task as early as possible. A substantially shorter time frame would give them a chance to demonstrate their sincerity.