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News >  Idaho

Tailings bill OK’d by House

Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer

BOISE – St. Maries Rep. Dick Harwood persuaded the Idaho House on Thursday to pass his bill to allow mining companies to file claims to tailings and dumps like those under the Coeur d’Alene River.

“All the things that EPA calls hazardous wastes, our mining people call minerals,” he told the House. “They’re thinking there’s probably $80 (million) to $100 million worth of material in that river.”

HB 60, which Harwood introduced, is aimed at allowing Jonathan Swift Mining to get a mineral lease for the Coeur d’Alene River bed as a first step toward what Harwood said is the company’s vision of mining millions in gold, silver, cadmium and zinc out of the mine tailings buried at the bottom of the river and Lake Coeur d’Alene. However, it’s written broadly, to simply allow mineral leases on state-owned navigable rivers for dumps and tailings – something that’s been prohibited by law since 1937. Only naturally occurring minerals can be mined from state-owned rivers.

The debate on the bill stretched for more than an hour and ran right through the lunch hour. In the end, the bill passed 39-28, and it now moves to the Senate.

Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, spoke out passionately against the bill, which he said threatens efforts that have been years in the works to get Lake Coeur d’Alene deleted from the Coeur d’Alene Basin Superfund site – efforts that focus on a lake-management plan aimed at keeping heavy metals safely encapsulated in sediments at the bottom of the lake and not disturbing them.

“An uneasy status quo is in place that allows the state to maintain management control over Lake Coeur d’Alene. That would avoid Superfund listing for that beautiful area,” Sayler told the House.

The chairmen of the House agriculture and environment committees both debated against the bill.

“I don’t think that we want to open this up statewide to any riverbed, any tailing, and that’s what this legislation does,” House Agriculture Chairman Doug Jones, R-Filer, told the House.

Longtime Rep. Jack Barraclough, R-Idaho Falls, chairman of the Environment, Energy and Technology committee, said, “I think it’d be a costly disaster. … Many rivers in Idaho have mine tailings in them. … Messing ‘em up is a bigger problem than leaving them in place.”

But Harwood, a third-term Republican, said he thinks the Environmental Protection Agency and Coeur d’Alene Tribe will dredge up the metals anyway as part of the Superfund cleanup. He wants mining companies to be able to process the resulting ore and make a profit from it.

“There would be nothing to bury, nothing to monitor for the state of Idaho,” Harwood told the House. “This is not asking them to dredge. This is asking them to get a lease underneath the river.”

Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, favored the bill.

“There are tons and tons and tons of valuable minerals that lie on the bottom of that lake,” Nonini told the House. “This is not about dredging – it’s about what we do with the materials once they’re dredged.”

But Sayler said that he contacted the EPA and the state Department of Environmental Quality and that they said they had no plans to dredge the lake. “There is no such intention,” he told the House.

“If we’re not going to dredge, why are we talking about what to do with all the material from the dredging?” Sayler asked.

He read from a press release issued Thursday by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe in which tribal Chairman Ernie Stensgar said, “This is a serious environmental issue, not an opportunity for mining companies to make money at the risk of doing even more harm to the lake. Dredging would be a terrible mistake.”

Stensgar, in the statement, called HB 60 “ill-conceived” and said the tribe “strongly opposes” it.

Harwood told the House, “This is really not a dredging bill – it has to do with leasing minerals under a river. … Folks, just remember, it’s a good piece of legislation.”

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