Three decades from now, Silver Valley residents could still be living in a Superfund site, under the federal government’s scaled-back cleanup plans.
After an outcry from Idaho’s elected officials and valley residents, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency drastically reduced the scope of its proposed $1.3 billion cleanup of historic mining waste in the upper Coeur d’Alene River basin. Under the original plan, the work could have lasted up to 100 years. EPA’s new plan would cost $740 million and finish up in about 30 years.
But the stigma of a Superfund designation, which many local residents are eager to shed, could linger after the reduced cleanup work.
The revised plan is “scientifically and legally” defensible, said Dan Opalski, EPA’s Superfund manager in Seattle. But he isn’t as confident that the new plan will produce enough results to lift the federal Superfund designation.
“We’re calling this an interim rather than a final solution,” Opalski said.
The new plan focuses on remediation projects that will do the most to remove heavy metals from the environment, he said. Ongoing monitoring will evaluate how effective they are.
After 30 years, it’s possible that the EPA could achieve cleanup goals for the upper basin, Opalski said. “We could be pleasantly surprised … but we don’t want to set expectations too high.”
A final decision on the plan is expected by June or July.
More than a century of mining has left a legacy of heavy-metal pollution in the Silver Valley, which washes downstream into Lake Coeur d’Alene and the Spokane River during high water and flooding. Exposure to lead, arsenic, cadmium and other metals is a health concern for people and for wildlife.
Nearly 7,000 public comments were submitted on the EPA’s original proposal. Most respondents said the proposed cleanup was too costly and too lengthy, and could keep the EPA in the Silver Valley for another three generations. Others said they wanted the cleanup done right.
“We’d also like the cleanup to be done as fast as possible, but it has to meet water quality standards,” said Terry Harris, executive director for Kootenai Environmental Alliance.
“I don’t think that EPA can meet the standards for a final cleanup by dropping items off the list,” Harris added. “They’re hoping to meet the standards; they might get lucky or the standards might change … . It seems to stretch things out more than anything else.”
For Shoshone County Commissioner Jon Cantamessa, the revised cleanup proposal was good news. He said the changes he’s heard about, such as removing active mining sites from the cleanup plan, make sense.
But like many longtime Silver Valley residents he wonders if the Silver Valley cleanup will ever come to an end.
“We need to get it to the point where it’s safe, and it’s getting there,” he said. “There are some sites we’re still concerned about, but a lot of the work has been done.”
“They’re ultra-cautious,” he said of the EPA.
One of the biggest cost savings in the new plan was scrapping a $300 million liner for 10 miles of the Coeur d’Alene River’s South Fork. The liner would have kept clean and polluted water from mixing, but the design posed engineering challenges.
The number of old mine and mill sites slated for cleanup dropped from 340 to 197 in the new plan. Some of the sites were in remote drainages east of Wallace and they appeared to have a lesser impact on water quality, Opalski said.