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Report finds CdA Basin water quality improving amid cleanup efforts

A new report from the U.S. Geological Survey shows that the cleanup of mining contamination in the Coeur d’Alene Basin has resulted in improved water quality, with concentrations of cadmium, lead and zinc significantly reduced since cleanup activities started in the 1990s, S-R reporter Becky Kramer reports. Overall, the report is “good news for the people of the basin,” said Rick Albright, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund cleanup director in Seattle. “We still have a long way to go in our cleanup efforts, but it’s nice to have scientific confirmation that we’ve made solid, measurable progress in reducing metals loads and improving area water quality.” You can read our full story here at spokesman.com.

New state endowment approved to fund Silver Valley mine-waste water treatment plant

Idaho’s state endowment fund has been showing strong returns, so state officials had no qualms this week about designating the endowment fund’s board to also oversee a new, $50 million permanent endowment, this one to permanently cover all costs of operating a water treatment plant to help clean up mining contamination in the Silver Valley.

The $50 million comes from Hecla Mining Corp. as part of a settlement of a giant Superfund lawsuit covering multiple companies and a wide swath of the Coeur d’Alene Basin where a century of mining spread contaminants harmful to people, fish, birds and more. A 2011 consent decree covering Hecla’s portion of the settlement required the company to deposit $66 million with the federal court; an amendment to that decree is expected by the end of this month to release the funds for cleanup activities.

Under the plan, the federal Environmental Protection Agency will use $15 million of the funds to expand an existing water treatment plant in Kellogg and operate the plant for the next five to 10 years, until those funds are spent. The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality will then take over, and it’s responsible for using the investment earnings from the remaining $50 million to operate the plant in perpetuity.

Idaho’s five top state elected officials, sitting this week as the state Board of Land Commissioners, approved setting up the new endowment and having the Endowment Fund Investment Board oversee its investment. That’s the group that now oversees the investment of the state’s $1.7 billion permanent endowment, whose earnings largely benefit the state’s schools.

So far this year, Idaho’s endowment fund has gained 17.5 percent from investment earnings. “We’re looking to come in with a strong result for the fiscal year which ends June 30,” investment manager Larry Johnson told the Land Board. The endowment’s earnings have been strong enough that it’s built up five years of reserves, so for the first time in several years, the annual distribution to Idaho’s public schools next year is expected to rise slightly, from $31.3 million to $31.5 million. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Panhandle Basin Advisory Group seeks representative-at-large member

Here's a good opportunity for citizens in North Idaho to get involved in helping improve improve water quality in the five northern counties with the Panhandle Basin Advisory Group (BAG).

The BAG advises the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) on water quality protection issues. It is comprised of representatives of local government, economic, environmental, agricultural, and recreational interests. The BAG currently has an opening for the representative-at-large member. Interested persons who have been involved in water quality issues in the five northern counties and are familiar with watersheds are encouraged to apply. Eligible expenses are reimbursed.

DEQ chief: Tests on kids show Silver Valley mine waste clean-up is working

Cleanup of mining wastes in the most-contaminated part of the Coeur d’Alene Basin appears to be working, Idaho’s Department of Environmental Quality chief told state lawmakers today, after a big push to test kids' blood lead levels in the Kellogg area once again this past summer turned up very low rates, with only 1 percent elevated at all. Curt Fransen, DEQ director, said blood-lead levels in children in the Kellogg area were once among the highest ever recorded in the country; now, they’ve dropped to “levels consistent with national averages.”

High blood-lead levels can cause extensive damage in children, including lowered IQ and long-lasting health problems. In the 1970s, children living near the Bunker Hill smelter when it was operating without pollution controls had blood-lead levels averaging 65 micrograms per deciliter. Now, the average level is 2.4 micrograms; just two of the 276 children tested this year had levels of 10 or above. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Another $65 million geared to mitigating mining damage to Clark Fork River

RIVERS — The riches of the Butte-area mining have evaporated in Western Montana as the federal government continues to try to undo the century-old environmental havoc the leftover heavy metals contributed to the Clark Fork River.

The $100-million project to remove Milltown Dam is complete.

Here's the latest step on the course back to a natural river, and wonderful fishery.

Final plan to clean up Upper Clark Fork River in Montana approved

The Trustee Restoration Council charged with allocating the funds from Montana's settlement with Atlantic Richfield Co. over natural resource damage caused by decades of mining in the Upper Clark Fork River Basin signed off on a 20-year plan that will fund $65.5 million worth of projects crafted to improve water and land in Anaconda, Elliston, Drummond and Missoula, and another $40 million on groundwater projects in Butte and Anaconda, and now Gov. Brian Schweitzer must sign off on the plan. — Helena Independent Record

Basin Cleanup Scaled Way Back

The proposed $1.3 billion Superfund cleanup of a century of mining contamination in North Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene 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 be unveiling the proposed changes at a Coeur d’Alene Basin Commission meeting Wednesday in Wallace. “We were hopeful that they would scale that back significantly,” Hardesty said. “It’s consistent with the comments that the state submitted, so we’re pleased”/Betsy Z. Russell, Eye On Boise. More here. (Betsy Russell photo: Idaho Rep. Shannon McMillan, right, and her son James, left, listen to committee debate on their resolution ordering the EPA to leave the Coeur d’Alene Basin)

Question: Do you support the move to significantly scale back Coeur d'Alene Basin cleanup?

Hecla Mining Co. settles one of the largest suits in EPA history - now the work begins

Earlier this week, the largest and oldest owner of Idaho's silver mine, Hecla Mining Co., reached a $263.4 million settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and the state to clean up historic mine waste in the Coeur d’Alene Basin. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, this settlement ranks among the top ten settlements in Superfund history.

Is it enough? Well, the money will be used to cleanup lead, arsenic and other heavy metals from their mining operations that have polluted 160 miles of the Coeur d’Alene River, its shoreline and downstream water bodies including Lake Coeur d’Alene and the Spokane River.

The Spokesman reported
about 150 tundra swans died this spring after ingesting toxic doses of lead in marshes along the Coeur d’Alene River and many of the river’s tributaries are too polluted to support fish.

Terry Harris has been following this issue for a long time at the Kootenai Environmental Alliance.

Death on the lower CdA River is annual spring disgrace

ENVIRONMENT – Some people in the Inland Northwest would like to think we live in a pristine area without need for strict environmental regulations or Superfund help.

But 150 or so tundra swans each year tell us something to the contrary as they slowly die during their migration stopover on the Lower Coeur d’Alene River.

It’s not a pretty sight, but your head's in the sand if you don’t see the carnage and the reasons for it. 

Read on.

Hecla May Pay $263M For Pollution

Hecla Mining Co. has reached a tentative settlement with the federal government, Coeur d’Alene Tribe and state of Idaho over its role in turning the Coeur d’Alene Basin into a Superfund site, company officials said today. Under the proposal, Hecla would pay $263.4 million over the next four years to resolve the company’s financial liability for historic releases of heavy metals into the environment. By April 15, the parties must report on the status of their negotiations in U.S. District Court in Boise. “The opportunity to settlement this litigation is an important milestone for the company,” Phil Baker, Hecla’s chief executive officer, told financial analysts today during a conference call/Becky Kramer, SR. More here.

Question: Are you happy with this tentative agreement?

Idaho Delegation Opposes EPA Plan

Idaho’s congressional delegation is lining up to oppose the Environmental Protection Agency’s mining cleanup plans in the Coeur d’Alene basin. In a joint news release, the delegation took turns criticizing the cost of the plan. Of some note here are comments from 2nd District Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho. While his district is hundreds of miles from the Coeur d’Alene basin, Simpson sits in a key position on this issue. In a Republican-controlled House, Simpson will chair an appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over EPA. “Setting all other arguments aside, there can be no justification for the costs associated with these changes given the current economic challenges facing our nation and the enormous debt Congress and the administration continue to pile on future generations,” wrote Simpson/Kevin Richert, Idaho Statesman. More here.

Question: Are the costs of the proposed EPA cleanup of the Silver Valley justified in view of the current economic situation in this country?

Otter Slams EPA’s Upper Basin Plan

Item: Otter letter critical of EPA: Governor says upper basin plan can’t go forward/Coeur d’Alene Press

More Info: In a letter on Monday, Gov. Butch Otter criticized the EPA’s proposed Record of Decision amendment for the Upper Basin, and said a successful cleanup in the Silver Valley “is impossible without a healthy community and a strong local economy.” “In my view, the proposed ROD amendment must not go forward unless the EPA commits that cleanup work will not impede existing or future mining,” Otter wrote. “Moreover, the proposed ROD is not acceptable unless the EPA identifies and commits to reasonable and achievable endpoints.”

Question: Otter goes on to say that the EPA must “live within people’s means.” Should the EPA hold off far-reaching plans during these hard economic times?

Bond: Seattle, Keep Hands Off Idaho

Following is an open letter to Seattle, written by David Bond, Wallace Street Journal: Imagine if some unelected bureaucracy in Post Falls, Idaho, decided, using computer models, that airplanes were unsafe because: (a) they crash once in awhile, and; (b) the aluminum and plastics used in their manufacture were unsafe to human health if consumed in large enough quantities. Having reached this conclusion, this Idaho  bureaucracy ordered the closure of all Boeing plants in your state for 50 to 90 years – said order absolute and not subject to court challenge. What would your reaction be? Probably similar to how those of us residing in the Coeur d’Alene Mining District of northern Idaho feel about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region X push for an irrevocable 50- to 90-year record of decision (ROD) imposing absolute rule over our mining community of 10,000 people. More here.

Question: What do you make of the EPA’s push for “absolute rule” over the mining district of the Silver Valley?

Glowing walls, big ag, and a shady mining company - Thursday news bites

In mid December we brought you the story of ASARCO, the American Smelting and Refining Company LLC, and the bankruptcy reorganization that resulted in $1.79 billion being awarded to fund environmental cleanup and restoration.  Now comes news that, Grupo Mexico, the company that bought ASARCO in 1999 may have “maneuvered Asarco into bankruptcy in an attempt to evade its environmental responsibilities,” this according to the Tacoma News Tribune.  “Grupo Mexico tried to use a bankruptcy court to avoid Asarco’s cleanup responsibilities, and they almost got away with it,” charged Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell. 

Some are calling this a wake-up call for federal regulators and Congress, while others, including Sen. Cantwell, are saying that, “another company almost certainly will try to manipulate the bankruptcy system the way they charge that Grupo Mexico did.”  Read more from the  News Tribune HERE. And we’ll be sure to stay on top of this story. 

Are you ready for light-emitting wallpaper?  In a story that recently appeared in the London Times, a London government body that supports low-carbon technology said light-emitting wallpaper may begin to replace light bults by 2012.  According to the story, “a chemical coating on the walls will illuminate all parts of the room with an even glow, which mimics sunlight and avoids the shadows and glare of conventional bulbs.  Although an electrical current will be used to stimulate the chemicals to produce light, the voltage will be very low and the walls will be safe to touch. Dimmer switches will control brightness, as with traditional lighting.”  We wonder what Thomas Edison would think?  Read more of this story HERE. 

Make sure you’re not eating when you read this: researchers say the overuse of antibiotics in humans and animals has led to a plague of drug-resistant infections that killed more than 65,000 people in the U.S. last year — more than prostate and breast cancer combined. And in a nation that used about 35 million pounds of antibiotics last year, 70 percent of the drugs — 28 million pounds — went to pigs, chickens and cows. Worldwide, it’s 50 percent. “This is a living breathing problem, it’s the big bad wolf and it’s knocking at our door,” said Dr. Vance Fowler, an infectious disease specialist at Duke University. “It’s here. It’s arrived.”  Also arriving is the battle over this issue that is starting to gain steam in D.C.  Lawmakers are fighting for a new law that would ban farmers from feeding antibiotics to their animals unless they’re sick.  And as expected, this move is backed by strong convictions and big money on both sides.  “Chaos will ensue,” said Kansas Republican Congressman Jerry Moran.  Moran is backed by the usual suspects, an array of powerful interests, including the American Farm Bureau, the National Pork Producers Council, Eli Lilly & Co., Bayer AG, Pfizer Inc., Schering-Plough Corp., Dow AgroSciences and Monsanto Company.  Read more of this story HERE. 

The eternal Sunshine

Incredible that, in 2009, a sign of economic hope in Silver Valley continues their enigmatic legacy which is still down in the mine. As silver prices rise—-currently trading at $17 an ounce—- the metal is suddenly a prospect. Again. So a court battle is emerging for the Sunshine Mine’s lease, located near Kellogg, Idaho. Sterling Mining Co, who reopened the Sunshine Mine two years ago and went bankrupt, are trying to win it back but owe more than $1 million to keep the contract, a sum that includes royalties to the EPA and Couer d’ Alene tribe for superfund cleanup, back taxes, and a federal fine for discharging metals into Big Creek.


Sunshine Mine has quite the history. In the past 125 years, it has produced more than 360 million ounces of silver, one of the county’s largest strikes. Also, one of the country’s deadliest mining disasters occured when ninety-one workers were killed during the 1972 Sunshine Mine fire. Full story HERE.


Press: Avoid Superfund Designation

If our region is perceived as highly contaminated and unsafe, prospective businesses would be less likely to start or relocate here, tourists would be less likely to flock here, and the loss of jobs we’ve seen in this recessional wave could look minor compared to what comes next. We also believe property values throughout the region would plummet. If the plan now before the Legislature is not approved, clean-up authority will revert to the federal government. For the good of all North Idaho, we urge legislators to support the plan and approve its funding. We’ve come too far to let this good work be derailed now/CDA Press Editorial Board. More here.

Question: Should Lake Coeur d’Alene be declared a Superfund site, if it really is one?

Another Green Monday

Looking alright at Midnite. Last week the EPA issued a unilateral administrative order to mining company Newmont USA Limited and its subsidiary Dawn Mining Company, LLC, to continue treating contaminated water at the Midnite Mine Superfund Site just northwest of Spokane on the Spokane Indian Reservation. midnite mine Midnite Mine Pit #3 From the 1950’s to 1981, the two companies operated an open pit uranium mine on the land that Blue Creek flows through, a creek that continues southeast to the Spokane River. The order requires the companies to continue treating water to remove uranium and other heavy metals and to find a place to dispose of the treated water which after treatment becomes a sludge that is classified as low-level radioactive waste. Previously the companies have been disposing of the water at the old mill site where they treated the ore. Sierra Club and Center for Environmental Law & Policy question wastewater treatment contract Spokane County poised to enter. Rachael Paschal Osborn, Spokane River Project Coordinator for the Sierra Club sent the letter to Spokane County Commissioners urging them to reconsider alternatives before agreeing on a contract with CH2MHil for a new wastewater treatment facility, a project County Commissioner Todd Mielke has predicted could cost $500 to $800 million and could potentially pose irreversible damage to the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer. “Cheaper and much more effective technology is available,” said Paschal Osborn. “Spokane County has never seriously evaluated the alternatives.” Two of the main points from the letter are; “Plant design is inadequate to address sewage overflows to the Spokane River and the County’s proposal to remove septic systems in exchange for discharging pollution into the River will not pass legal muster.” Read the letter HERE. Photobucket Spokane Clean Air. Last weekend, the National Weather Service issued an air stagnation advisory throughout the Inland Northwest, which warned of rising air pollution levels from woodstoves, automobiles, and other sources. In Coeur d’ Alene, the Department of Environmental Quality issued a residential burn ban, and while The Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency has not ordered any burning restrictions, they are asking residents to keep from burning is possible. If you do burn, the agency says, use dry, seasoned wood and minimize smoke. The air stagnation comes from a high-pressure area moving over the region, causing a cold, ground level layer that prevents ventilation and mixes pollutants. For updates, check www.spokanecleanir.org. They monitor air quality daily and provide email notifications with pollution levels, burn ban information, regulation/rule changes, and more. Also, try their 24-hr Air Quality Info Line at 509-477-2571. Photobucket Have you heard about Obama’s proposed Office of Urban Policy? According to David Goldberg at Transportation for America, it “is conceived as something of a supercabinet position that potentially could coordinate policy among the Department of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, environment, public health and other arenas.” Sounds pretty sweet, eh? Now, the gang over at Walkscore is all over it, hosting a new site for suggestions like ending subsidies for car-dependent development. Check it out, leave a comment, and let’s keep the dialogue of progress moving. And while you’re at the home page, have fun by entering your address to rate your walkability.

Another Green Monday

Photobucket One more time… As most of our readers already know, we take a lot of political jabs. (It’s a blog, it’s expression, so there.) But we make no apologies for criticizing Tim Eyman and his hopeless I-985, an initiative for single occupancy vehicles. Maybe it’s because nobody would ever want to ride in a car with Eyman. Championed by those who want to drive in the transit-only lane (buses, carpool, shuttle), the initiative only benefits central Puget Sound. “We looked in detail at the flow of revenue into I-985’s transportation fund, the required spending under the initiative, and the regional concentration of the congestion problems to which I-985 is directed. And whatever Mr. Eyman might hope or claim, I-985 would wind up shifting about $180 million in revenues from the rest of the state into greater Seattle,” said Sightline founder Clark Williams-Derry. “Over 5 years, we expect that the average family of four outside of the Seattle area will ship about $229 in tax dollars to pay for Seattle-area road projects.” Photobucket Sign up for Nov. 18: Climate Leadership Now. From Liz Butler at 1Sky: No matter who our next president is or what the next Congress looks like after Election Day, we’ll have to keep pushing our leaders for real solutions to the energy crisis and climate change. On Tuesday, November 18, join volunteers across America to welcome the President-elect and the new Congress by calling on them to make climate an immediate priority in 2009: http://www.1sky.org/november18 We already have over one thousand volunteers signed up covering every state in the country! We have a unique opportunity after this election to make real climate solutions a top national priority. If we lay the groundwork early enough, it will be impossible for our leaders to ignore our call for bold leadership on climate. Oh No Asarco. The fallout from the economic disaster continues to spray bad news on Americans – and in Everett a nearly 100 year-old pollution problem is still sitting on the back burner. Asarco, a mining company responsible for about 40 contaminated sites around America, and a company who before the economic shakedown was on less than sturdy financial ground, is using its economic woes to get out of a $38 million dollar cleanup job it had already agreed to. The copper-mining monster agreed to spend the millions to remove lead, arsenic and other heavy metals in soil and groundwater near a copper smelter the company ran in Everett from 1892 to 1912. Asarco you see, as a good friend of DTE put it, “is a poster child of bad acting in the mining industry.”Nearly the same scenario played out in a lead smelter mine in East Helena Montana in 2002 and it’s Asarco that has shares in the Continental Pit in Butte, Montana – one of a number of ill-managed contaminated mining sites in Butte. And now as our friend says, “they’re about to screw Washington.” Read more HERE.