It’s time to step outside “the box,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says.
The EPA announced Wednesday that it’s investigating the extent of mining contamination outside the 21-square-mile Bunker Hill Superfund “box” with the intent of developing a comprehensive cleanup plan for the entire Coeur d’Alene River basin.
The agency is using its authority under the Superfund law to take on the job.
“It is time for us to broaden our focus,” said Mike Gearheard, regional director of the EPA’s Superfund program. “It’s among the most serious environmental challenges long-standing in the country and viewed by some people as hopeless.”
The agency plans to spend two or three years studying contamination and then developing a cleanup plan. Then, negotiations will begin with mining companies over how to pay for it. Litigation could follow to force mining companies to pay.
Studies are under way to measure the extent of contamination from Mullan, near the Idaho-Montana border, to Long Lake, northwest of Spokane. But that does not mean that the entire area will be included in a cleanup plan, EPA officials cautioned.
The process is the same as that used for a Superfund site - without the EPA actually listing the area as a Superfund site. Gearheard said the area doesn’t need to be listed because, as far as the government is concerned, it is considered part of the Bunker Hill Superfund site.
Nonetheless, reaction was swift and defensive from some politicians.
“Lake Coeur d’Alene is not a Love Canal,” Coeur d’Alene Mayor Steve Judy, said, referring to the nation’s most infamous Superfund site. “We do not need the stigma of a Superfund site. We cannot afford it.”
Idaho Sen. Larry Craig’s office also criticized the move.
“We don’t need to do more study,” said Mike Tracy, the Idaho Republican’s spokesman. “The EPA continues to want to drag its feet on the actual cleanup and spend more time on studies and legal wrangling.”
The EPA has been talking with the state, mining companies and others for months about stepping up its involvement in basin cleanup, but mining interests still expressed shock at the news Wednesday.
“The companies understood that they wouldn’t go ahead under Superfund…while we were in the middle of negotiation and mediation,” said Holly Houston of the Coeur d’Alene Basin Mining Information Office. The office represents Silver Valley mining companies that are being sued by the federal government and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe over pollution in the basin.
The formal investigation and study under Superfund is proceeding at the same time that a mediator - hired by the EPA, state, mining companies and tribe - is trying to find consensus on a comprehensive clean-up plan of the Bunker Hill site.
The mining companies prefer the mediation approach to the Superfund approach, Houston said.
“It (Superfund) is the wrong way to go,” Houston said. “If you look at the examples of the EPA doing it this way, they’ve never shown it being done without it being very litigious and costing a lot of money.”
Mining companies also have more to lose under a Superfund lawsuit. Under Superfund, if they lose in court they pay triple damages.
Gearheard highlighted the positive aspects of the EPA’s track record: The agency will have cleaned up 585 Superfund sites by the end of this year and the major work at the Bunker Hill project is nearly finished.
“It’s a process we know how to do and we’ve done it for a number of years,” he said. “This is a big one, but we’re going to take advantage of the information that’s out there. We’re not going to re-invent all that.”
EPA officials said they did not have an estimate for how much the investigation and study would cost.
While Houston, Craig and others say enough studies have been done, “to that I would say, ‘Show me the agreement,”’ Gearheard said.
“I would hope when we put down our cleanup plan, that it achieves peace in the valley,” he said.
So far, state officials are withholding judgment.
An informal group of state environmental officials, members of the Silver Valley Natural Resource Trustees and the state-appointed Coeur d’Alene River Basin Commission met Wednesday morning to discuss their role in the basin cleanup.
They decided the basin commission should move forward with putting together a state cleanup plan.
“The state’s got to figure out what we would like to see happen and see if we can make it fit” with the EPA’s process, said Chuck Moss, chairman of the Silver Valley Natural Resource Trust Fund - a state fund that’s dedicated to clean up in the basin.
EPA officials emphasize that their process is open and inclusive. They are planning on holding public meetings in April.
“They seem to be interested in getting public input and locally elected officials input,” said state Sen. Jack Riggs, R-Coeur d’Alene. “That seems to be the right approach.”
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