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EPA will slash CdA River Basin cleanup plan

North Idaho legislators want expedited end to Superfund designation

BOISE – The proposed $1.3 billion Superfund cleanup of a century of mining contamination in North Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene River Basin is being scaled back significantly, Idaho lawmakers were told Tuesday.

Instead of taking up to 100 years and costing $1.3 billion, the cleanup would last more like 30 years and cost about $736 million, Idaho Department of Environmental Quality Director Toni Hardesty told the House Environment Committee. The Environmental Protection Agency will unveil the proposed changes today in Wallace.

“We were hopeful that they would scale that back significantly,” Hardesty said of the EPA. “It’s consistent with the comments that the state submitted, so we’re pleased.”

The EPA received about 7,000 public comments on the cleanup plan, which is intended to reduce the risk of heavy metals exposure for people and wildlife in the basin. It targets more than 300 old mine sites, along with polluted streams. But both the plan’s price tag and the 50- to 100-year time frame have been questioned by local residents and Idaho’s congressional delegation.

In addition to the drop in time frame and price tag, Hardesty listed several other major changes that will be unveiled in the revised cleanup plan, only some of which had been previously announced by the EPA:

• A $300 million project to install a plastic liner along the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River would be dropped.

• Active mine sites would be removed from the cleanup.

• Remote mine and mill sites that have been inspected and found not to pose a risk would be removed from the cleanup.

• The cleanup would focus away from drainages where water quality already meets standards, such as the South Fork above Wallace.

Hardesty discussed the scaled-back cleanup plan during testimony on a resolution proposed by Rep. Shannon McMillan, R-Silverton, calling for the EPA to end its Superfund cleanup and leave the Silver Valley within five years.

McMillan told the committee, “The valley has been decimated. Businesses by the hundreds are gone.”

Her son, Wallace attorney James McMillan, who drafted the resolution, told the committee, “We believe it’s time to say that enough is enough. The human health hazard has been diminished.” He also told lawmakers that the state never got to comment on the EPA’s “Record of Decision.”

Hardesty held up a thick sheaf of papers, saying, “Here are the comments that the state submitted.” She noted that agencies including the DEQ, the Idaho Department of Water Resources, the Bureau of Homeland Security, and Idaho Fish and Game all weighed in.

She also pointed out that an $800 million trust fund, which came from settlements with the mining firms Asarco and Hecla, is court-ordered to be spent on the cleanup. “And $800 million cannot be spent in a five-year time frame in this particular geographic area,” she said.

Hardesty said the resolution, as written, calls on the state to reject a plan that hasn’t yet been finalized and “directs the federal government to do something they can’t legally do” – walk away from a Superfund cleanup without doing all the work.

Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, said he wanted to pass McMillan’s resolution anyway. “The people of the valley are really frustrated up there with what’s happened over the years,” he said.

The resolution is a nonbinding, strongly worded message that the Idaho Legislature would send to Congress and the EPA: “The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has, for the past three decades, crippled industrial development in Shoshone County through its Superfund designation, based upon highly questionable scientific data,” the resolution states. “The EPA is now proposing a plan in which it will perpetuate its unconstitutional, economically paralyzing usurpation of state and local authority for another fifty to ninety years at an estimated cost of nearly one billion dollars.”

Said Harwood, “It wouldn’t hurt to send this back there and let them know how we’re feeling.”

The committee voted instead to hold the resolution indefinitely, with the possibility that it could be reconsidered.

Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise, said, “I think perhaps a more productive memorial would be one that … exerts as much Idaho control as we can over what is money in the bank, an $800 million trust. … Why not draft a memorial suggesting that this money be spent in Idaho for Idahoans using Idaho companies? I think that would be a step towards economic development. It’d be good for this entire state.”