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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Missed chances scrub cleanup of lead-tainted beach for now

Cleanup of a lead-tainted Spokane River beach near the Idaho state line has been delayed for a year and will cost three times more than initial estimates.

Environmentalists are disappointed and the agencies involved are doing some finger-pointing after missing the deadline to work in the river during its fall low flow. The cleanup was supposed to begin this week.

“We ran out of time. Everything went wrong, and we had too many things to resolve in this year’s construction window. We will do this next year,” said Cami Grandinetti, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund project manager in Seattle.

The project to scrub lead and other heavy metals from the Gravel Bar Complex on the river’s north side near Starr Road is part of the $359 million, 30-year Coeur d’Alene Basin cleanup of mine wastes from Mullan to Spokane. It’s the first cleanup in Washington.

Project costs have escalated from an estimated $300,000 to as much as $900,000, in part because the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission balked at stabilizing the contaminated soils on the state-owned site – insisting they be hauled away to a landfill.

EPA had to coordinate the project with parks and fisheries agencies, two Native American tribes, the Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Washington Department of Ecology and Avista Utilities.

Avista draws down Lake Coeur d’Alene in mid-September – submerging the gravel bar where the work was to have occurred. Avista’s lake drawdown started Thursday, said company spokesman Hugh Imhof.

Ecology is disappointed that the cleanup of the Gravel Bar Complex and a second beach, the nearby Island Complex Floodplain on the river’s south bank, couldn’t be done this year, said spokeswoman Jani Gilbert.

“We got a verbal assurance from EPA they’d clean up both beaches next year. We’d like to have that in writing. We are trying to provide people with safe places to play,” Gilbert said.

EPA headquarters has assured EPA’s Seattle regional office that the money will be there for the project next year, Grandinetti said.

An environmental activist decried the delay.

“It’s very disappointing,” said Mike Petersen of The Lands Council. “The money was there, but somebody dropped the ball.”

Starr Road and the Gravel Bar Complex were among 10 beaches identified in the EPA’s 2002 Record of Decision, a blueprint for the big regional mine waste cleanup. The Spokane River contamination was first detected in 1999 as part of a government study of how far Silver Valley mine wastes have spread over a century.

Last fall, the EPA took $300,000 from legal settlements with polluting mining companies for the Spokane River beaches. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did the design work, and the construction costs escalated to $600,000.

After the parks commission refused to let project engineers stabilize the heavy metals on site – a cleanup remedy being used in the rest of the Coeur d’Alene Basin – Ecology committed to spending an additional $200,000 to $300,000 to haul 1,500 cubic yards of debris to a landfill.

The ultimate success of the Spokane River cleanups will depend on how well upstream pollution is being addressed.

Tons of lead, zinc and cadmium from the Silver Valley are still flushing into Coeur d’Alene Lake and the Spokane River, according to a 2003 U.S. Geological Survey study. From 1999 to 2001, years of average streamflow, a half million pounds of lead in contaminated mine sediment landed in the lake and nearly 48,000 pounds continued down the Spokane River, the USGS study says.

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