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Residents fear cleanup will hinder Silver Valley economy

KELLOGG – Too far-reaching, too costly. Another knock for the Silver Valley.

That was the consensus of public testimony Monday evening at a town hall meeting on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s $1.3 billion plan to clean up mining waste in the upper Coeur d’Alene River Basin over the next 50 to 100 years.

“We don’t need our community to go through the devastation of being a Superfund site for 30 or 50 or 90 years,” said Wallace Mayor Dick Vester. “We don’t want this thing to go on forever.”

Vester was among 200 citizens who attended the meeting at Kellogg High School. While state and federal politicians raised concerns about the plan’s price tag, residents said the EPA’s extended presence would hinder the Silver Valley’s efforts to re-emerge from decades of economic hardship caused by earlier downturns in the mining industry.

“This is an unwelcome plan. It’s an unnecessary plan,” said John Magnuson, a Coeur d’Alene attorney whose family has deep roots in the Silver Valley. “This community needs a chance at economic self-determination. … A 100-year stigmatization is not the answer.”

The meeting was called by U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, a member of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees the EPA. Idaho Gov. Butch Otter also attended the meeting, along with Chief Allan, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, and Dan Opalski, cleanup director for EPA’s regional office in Seattle.

Otter said his office is still digesting the 2,200-page federal document, which focuses on improving water quality across 300 square miles of the basin.

However, “I will not support an open-ended bureaucratic process that amounts to a blank check for the EPA,” the governor said.

“I’m here to listen and hear your perspectives,” Opalski responded. “We want to hear every viewpoint about the plan that’s out there.”

The plan’s length and price tag reflect the magnitude of cleanup needed to make the upper basin healthy for people and wildlife, he said. Opalski also told the audience that the cleanup is “compatible with responsible mining in the valley into the very far future.”

He said the EPA has already decided to extend the comment period beyond Aug. 25, in response to requests from the Idaho congressional delegation and others. A new comment deadline hasn’t been set.

EPA officials said the agency’s earlier cleanup plan for the upper basin doesn’t do enough to protect water quality. The new plan targets old mine sites and waste rock piles, which leach lead, arsenic, cadmium and other heavy metals downstream. In addition, pockets of polluted groundwater would be piped to a Kellogg plant for treatment.

Both people and wildlife would benefit from the cleanup, EPA officials said. Some stream stretches remain too toxic to support fish.

Flooding spreads the heavy metals, and people who recreate along the shoreline can be exposed to polluted water and soil, according to the EPA.

“This (plan) properly and honestly describes the extent of this problem,” said Terry Harris, executive director of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance. The Coeur d’Alene-based organization has members in the Silver Valley as well as the lower basin, said Harris, who urged the EPA not to delay the cleanup work too long.

Executives from Hecla Mining Co., which operates the Lucky Friday Mine in Mullan, said they oppose parts of the plan. It lists three active tailings ponds as future cleanup sites and could hinder mineral exploration in the Silver Valley, executives said.

Some audience members said they didn’t think the remaining mine waste in the Silver Valley posed health risks.

Bill Mooney, who lives in Burke Canyon, said he has two neighbors in their 90s who drink the water and eat homegrown vegetables irrigated with local water supplies.

“Mining jobs are good jobs,” Mooney said. “Shoshone County needs all the jobs it can get, and so does the state of Idaho.”

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