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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Scientists back basin cleanup plan

A massive federal cleanup plan for mine waste in Idaho’s Silver Valley is based on “generally sound” scientific and technical principles, according to a report released Thursday by the National Academy of Sciences.

If anything, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ought to expand its efforts to protect residents and wildlife in the Coeur d’Alene and Spokane river basins from the toxic legacy of 100 years of mining, according to the review conducted by 17 scientists. The panel even called for mandatory blood testing for lead in every child aged 1 to 4 in the Coeur d’Alene Basin, which stretches from the Montana border to Spokane.

Critics of the EPA’s $359 million cleanup plan, including Idaho’s congressional delegation, had requested the scientific review, saying the plan cost too much money, was based on shaky science and stigmatized the Silver Valley.

“The mining and tourism industry called on the Idaho political delegation for help. It looks like it kind of went backwards,” said Barbara Miller, a longtime health activist and leader of the Silver Valley Community Resource Center in Kellogg.

Miller said she will use the 363-page report to push for additional federal funding and grants for community health programs.

But the report also agrees with many recommendations offered by EPA critics, including a contention that more data is needed to determine the extent and origin of elevated blood lead levels in the region, said Ron Roizen, a resident of Wallace and member of the Shoshone Natural Resources Coalition. Many recommendations in the report are expected to be used in future cleanup plans at other so-called “mining megasites” – a fact that disappoints Roizen.

“In the end, we’re effectively guinea pigs. Our service will be to future Superfund sites and we won’t get the benefits,” he said. “We had great hopes. We have felt that we’ve gotten a raw deal by EPA, that we’ve been exploited and stigmatized for a problem that doesn’t exist. We were hoping that (the scientific panel) would say EPA exaggerated.”

Since the Bunker Hill smelter and mining complex in Kellogg was placed on the national Superfund priorities list in 1983, the EPA has spent more than $250 million on cleanup. The scope and cost of the cleanup have expanded in the last decade, triggering widespread debate. Many environmentalists contend the cleanup should also focus on addressing the thousands of tons of toxic heavy metals that have been flushed into Lake Coeur d’Alene and the Spokane River.

The report seems to agree. The committee of scientists expressed “substantial concerns” that the EPA is not going far enough to protect the environment from leftover mine waste. One of the major shortcomings in the plan is a lack of attention given to zinc-tainted groundwater, which seeps into streams and poses the greatest threat to the life of downstream fish and aquatic life, according to the report.

The EPA was also faulted for not considering the environmental risks posed by the frequent flooding that occurs in the basin. These floods, which environmentalists have blamed on decades of aggressive logging practices on nearby federal lands, roil deposits of heavy metals and can easily erase cleanup efforts, according to the report.

Hopefully the warning will prompt a more holistic approach to the cleanup, including a greater role for state and federal agencies charged with managing forestlands, said David J. Tollerud, chairman of the panel of scientists and professor of public health, medicine and pharmacology at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

“It really needs some broader thinking. There are organizations outside of the Superfund process that need to be brought on board,” he said. “You have to treat it as a very large, complex system. A change in forestry patterns in the upper basin can have dramatic effects on floods in the lower basin.”

The report, which cost $850,000, was presented Wednesday in Washington, D.C., during a closed-door session with Idaho’s congressional delegation. The delegation issued a joint news release Thursday responding to the report.

The brief statement praised the scientists’ call for more flexibility from EPA but otherwise offered little reaction. “We remain committed to working with the Basin Commission in monitoring this process, and to ensuring that the well-being of the people of the Coeur d’Alene Basin is its highest priority,” the statement read.

EPA officials said they feel gratified by the panel’s overall conclusions. “Their report suggests that contrary to a position that you should narrow your activities, they say we really do need to take a big-picture view of the system and look at how each piece of the problem is connected with the other pieces,” Dan Opalski, Pacific Northwest regional EPA Superfund director in Seattle, told the Associated Press.

The report’s recommendations are not mandatory. Dr. John Osborn, a Spokane physician and longtime advocate for an expanded cleanup program, said he hopes the report will be impossible to ignore.

“For many years, a lot of leaders in this region have put their head in the sand and did not want to acknowledge the scope of the problem,” Osborn said. The National Academy of Sciences “is once again calling attention to the enormity of this pollution problem and to the difficulties of restoring our Spokane River and Lake Coeur d’Alene watershed,” he added.

EPA critic Roizen said the National Academy of Sciences is considered the “highest scientific court in the land,” which makes the report “a hard pill for us to swallow.” Roizen is not sure the document will add any clarity to the debate.

“People are pretty dug in,” he said.