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News >  Idaho

Committee kills tailing-mining rights bill

Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer

BOISE – Legislation to allow miners to tap into old underwater dumps and tailings – like those in the Coeur d’Alene Basin – has died in a Senate committee.

“I’m not going to give the bill a hearing,” said Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, chairman of the Senate Resources Committee. “I personally wouldn’t want ‘em disturbing those sediments, because the heavy metals are on the bottom. Let’s just leave ‘em lie is my attitude.”

Schroeder said he conferred with all of North Idaho’s senators, and they generally shared his view, so he decided to stop the bill, HB 60, which had earlier passed the House on a 39-28 vote. “I’m going to put it in my desk drawer,” Schroeder said.

His decision came as the Coeur d’Alene Basin Commission, which is overseeing the Superfund cleanup of the basin, issued a press release emphasizing that there are absolutely no plans to dredge Lake Coeur d’Alene as part of the ongoing basin cleanup. Backers of the bill, representing Jonathan Swift Mining Co., had suggested that government agencies will dredge the lake and the Coeur d’Alene River to remove contaminants, and said the bill would allow them to profitably process the dredged-up sediments.

“My business is just to make sure that people don’t think we’re dredging the lake, for crying out loud,” said Terry Harwood, executive director of the basin commission. “There are possibilities that materials will be removed from the river that are in there. I don’t know what their values are, but no volumes like what you’d have if you dredged Coeur d’Alene.”

Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, the sponsor of the bill, said, “If the dredging takes place, there’s an opportunity to get rid of the material rather than just to put it in a depository somewhere and monitor it.”

Jonathan Swift Mining Co. applied for a mineral lease on the bed of the Coeur d’Alene River in two locations in Kootenai and Shoshone counties, seeking to extract lead, zinc and silver. The Idaho Department of Lands rejected the application in part because Idaho law doesn’t allow mining leases on dumps and tailings – just on naturally occurring mineral deposits.

That law has been on the books since 1937. HB 60 would have reversed it by opening up any dumps or tailings in state-owned riverbeds to mining leases.

Lee Haynes, one of the principals in Swift Mining, told the House Resources Committee on March 7 that his company estimates the lake and river could contain $80 million to $100 million worth of minerals. Swift Mining doesn’t want to dredge the stuff up, Haynes told the lawmakers, but figures the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Coeur d’Alene Tribe will as part of the basin cleanup.

Both the EPA and the tribe strongly denied that contention.

Tribal Chairman Ernie Stensgar said, “The tribe would never approve dredging in this fragile environment, and we urge the state to reject this reckless proposal.”

Cami Grandinetti, EPA cleanup manager for the basin, said, “We specifically don’t talk about dredging. There’s contamination from top to bottom in that basin, and we’re not talking about removing it – we’re talking about leaving it alone and managing it where it is.”

In fact, there’s been much focus lately on a lake management plan for Lake Coeur d’Alene aimed at keeping old mining wastes now buried at the lake’s bottom safely encased there, and ensuring they’re not disturbed. If the plan wins EPA approval, the lake could be deleted from the Superfund cleanup list.

The basin cleanup is guided by a Record of Decision issued in September 2002. One section of the ROD does discuss possible future “sediment removal or management operations” in two locations along the Coeur d’Alene River, near Dudley and the Cataldo Mission. But Grandinetti said that definitely wouldn’t mean dredging the river.

Most of the focus in those areas would be on removing deposits that have built up along the banks or in dry areas where the river formerly ran, Grandinetti said. Any actual work in the river would involve small and very selective removals, to avoid washing contaminants downstream.

Bob Hopper, owner/manager of the New Bunker Hill Mine in Kellogg and another of the principals in Swift Mining, said his partners, stunned by the EPA’s estimates of the amount of contaminants in the basin, said, “Well, tell you what, if the government says there is that much there, then why don’t we see about acquiring it?”

But he dismissed talk that the whole Jonathan Swift Mining Co. is a hoax or a joke, as has been widely rumored, because it’s named after the 17th-century Irish author famous for satirical works including “Gulliver’s Travels” and “A Modest Proposal.”

“Somebody came up with the name Jonathan Swift Mining Co. Most of us immediately had a picture of the Lilliputians tying the giant down,” Hopper said. “Now, you can take that as funny – but that does not lessen the dead-serious work that we put into this.”

Hopper has had a long-running legal dispute with the EPA, which sued him for $100 million in civil fines and penalties last April, saying he stuck taxpayers with the bill for treating 13 years worth of discharge from his mine.

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