A deputy regional administrator ad mits the Environmental Protection Agency pushed too hard to collect information for a $600 million lawsuit over Coeur d’Alene Basin mining damage.
Charles Findley said in an open letter sent to media outlets Wednesday that certified letters seeking information last month from more than 70 companies about their role in area mining since 1880 were heavy-handed.
“I wish we had done the letters differently,” Findley said.
The information sought is aimed at determining whether any of the companies should be added to the list of defendants in a lawsuit seeking payment for damages to natural resources. The original federal complaint names Hecla Mining Co. and Coeur d’Alene Mines Corp., both of Coeur d’Alene, Asarco Inc. of New York and Sunshine Mining Inc. of Boise, as well as four current or past subsidiaries of those companies.
Last month’s letters were described as threatening in tone by some of the recipients. If the companies have “relevant information and withhold it they are subject to penalty” in a separate legal action, said Mike Gearheard, associate director for the EPA’s environmental cleanup office in Region 10.
Findley’s letter expressed regret for the tone.
“We should have called people to let them know what we need. We should have taken our legalistic letter and translated it to plain English,” he wrote. “And we should have given people more than 14 days” to respond.
The deadline, which created a furor among letter recipients and Idaho’s congressional delegation, prompted the EPA to allow extensions upon request.
“We’ve gotten replies from about half of the parties,” Gearheard said, and most of the rest have requested extensions.
The EPA erred by trying to match a deadline set for the federal trustees in the lawsuit - the departments of the Interior and Agriculture and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. A federal judge said any additional defendants must be named by Aug. 29.
On Monday, 16 companies were given 60-day notice by the federal trustees that they are being considered for inclusion in the suit.
But the EPA, since it is not party to the lawsuit, is not subject to that notice requirement, Gearheard said. It can add defendants, with the Justice Department’s approval, based on Superfund damage determinations.
“We can add parties or settle parties out,” Gearheard said. Settling with companies would “basically give them legal protection” from the damage suit.
“There is widespread interest across the country that we don’t go after a few parties that have deep pockets,” he said. So the EPA intends to include all companies in the lawsuit that it determines “played a significant role” in basin resource damage.
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