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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Idaho

Waste storage a toxic topic

Satisfactory repository sites are hard to find in Silver Valley

Nick Arthun, of North Wind Construction, makes his way up a hill during construction Tuesday at East Mission Flats in Cataldo.  The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality purchased land in East Mission Flats over the past three years for a repository for  truckloads of dirt polluted with heavy metals. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Nick Arthun, of North Wind Construction, makes his way up a hill during construction Tuesday at East Mission Flats in Cataldo. The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality purchased land in East Mission Flats over the past three years for a repository for truckloads of dirt polluted with heavy metals. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

CATALDO, Idaho – A blue heron rose from behind a screen of cattails near Old Mission State Park, while a redwing blackbird let out a raspy call. East Mission Flats was full of humid heat and competing birdcalls on a recent morning – deceptively tranquil for a spot that’s become a battleground over mining waste storage.

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality plans to dump more than 40,000 truckloads of Superfund waste at the East Mission Flats repository, a 23-acre site across Interstate 90 from the Sacred Heart Mission at Cataldo, Idaho’s oldest building. More than 2,000 area residents signed petitions objecting to the location. The Coeur d’Alene Tribe, whose ancestors built the mission with Jesuit priests in the 1850s, also opposes the repository.

The controversy could be a taste of things to come.

Over the next 25 years, DEQ will need storage space for 600,000 truckloads of waste as state and federal agencies clean up a century of mining pollution in Idaho’s Silver Valley. That much waste would fill 15 repositories the size of East Mission Flats.

“I emphasize that volume of material in every public meeting,” said Andy Mork, DEQ’s repository program manager. “It establishes the need for repositories.”

Finding flat ground for waste storage is difficult in the Silver Valley, a narrow gorge framed by steep hillsides. Some of the best potential repository sites are owned by mining companies, but those aren’t available, according to DEQ.

Asarco, one of the Silver Valley’s largest historic polluters, is in bankruptcy, with its assets locked up in court. Other companies are still involved in Superfund litigation.

DEQ evaluated 300 potential sites before picking East Mission Flats. Repositories need to be close to major roads, Mork said. And East Mission Flats is already contaminated with lead, arsenic and cadmium that washed down the Coeur d’Alene River and settled in the floodplain, he said.

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe objects to the site on cultural and environmental grounds. “… This was and still is sacred ground,” the tribe wrote in a letter to DEQ, detailing the tribe’s historic and spiritual ties to the nearby mission.

In addition, the tribe’s lake scientists and others are concerned about storing waste in an unlined repository, fearing metals could leach out of the soil and wash downstream into Lake Coeur d’Alene and the Spokane River.

“If it gets into the Coeur d’Alene River, we’ll get a part of it,” said Post Falls Mayor Clay Larkin, another opponent.

Soil coming from yards

Most of the Superfund waste is coming from people’s yards. To reduce children’s risk of lead exposure, up to a foot of topsoil is removed and replaced with clean dirt, producing about 20 cubic yards of waste per residential property. Future waste also will come from cleanup of abandoned mines and tailings piles.

The Silver Valley is home to five repositories, but the East Mission Flats project has hit a nerve. The site has prompted peaceful demonstrations, extended public comment periods, and constituent calls to Congressman Walt Minnick and even Idaho’s Roman Catholic bishop, the Most Rev. Mike Driscoll.

Minnick has been in touch with the Environmental Protection Agency, which is covering 90 percent of the repository’s cost, Minnick’s office said. Driscoll will be at Old Mission State Park on Saturday to celebrate Mass with members of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe during the Feast of the Assumption, a festival honoring the Virgin Mary. He’s looking into the repository issue, according to a Boise Diocese spokesman.

The Silver Valley Community Resource Center, a nonprofit advocacy group led by local activist Barbara Miller, learned Tuesday that EPA will send Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response, to Idaho next week to view the site and meet with citizens. Details are still being worked out, Miller said.

Work has started on the East Mission Flats repository, whose first two phases will cost about $1.1 million. State officials hope to begin trucking metals-laced dirt to East Mission Flats before the end of August. Federal stimulus money accelerated yard cleanup work this summer, which means that an existing repository at Big Creek is running out of space, Mork said. But state officials are waiting on the EPA’s Office of Inspector General.

Concerns investigated

Two years ago, the Silver Valley Community Resource Center asked the Inspector General’s office to look into the East Mission Flats repository. The Office of Inspector General is an independent office within the EPA, funded by Congress to conduct audits and investigations.

Miller’s group said the public didn’t receive enough opportunity to comment on the repository. The group also raised concerns about storing mine waste in an area that floods regularly.

In a June report, the Inspector General said members of the public had ample opportunity to respond to the repository proposal through public meetings and three formal comment periods. But the report also noted that parts of the site were underwater when the inspectors visited last spring and asked for more information about the repository’s design.

An EPA hydrogeologist, who wasn’t involved in the site design, independently reviewed the work and confirmed that it wouldn’t leach heavy metals, said Ed Moreen, an EPA project manager in Coeur d’Alene. The agencies are waiting for the Inspector General’s response to the independent review.

Miller grew up at Old Mission State Park, where her father was the caretaker. She said state and federal agencies should be cleaning up East Mission Flats, not bringing in more waste. It disturbs her that the Superfund pollution will remain in the Silver Valley, even after the cleanup is complete.

“It’s like moving toxic waste around like musical chairs,” Miller said.

The repositories reduce human health risks by containing the waste, DEQ’s Mork said.

“We’re managing it,” Mork said. “That’s what this is all about. We’re managing the waste to minimize exposure.”

DEQ defends design

The Superfund waste heading to the repository is actually cleaner than the soil at East Mission Flats, where heavy metals already pollute surface and groundwater, according to a DEQ report.

The repository’s design will prevent leaching, Mork said. The imported soil will be compacted and mounded so that rainwater runs off instead of percolating through. Although the site floods, I-90 acts as a levee, slowing the water as it reaches the repository site, he said. Models indicate that rock riprap around the base of the mounds will prevent erosion, according to Mork.

The repository’s footprint will take up about 14 of the 23 acres, Mork added. No waste will be stored in wetlands, he said.

But the state’s claims elicit skepticism from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, which says that neither the East Mission Flats repository nor existing repositories use state-of-the-art technology.

“Its pretty ridiculous to think the contamination won’t get out,” said Marc Stewart, a spokesman for the tribe. “You need an underliner.”

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