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EPA to begin cleanup of Coeur d’Alene River Basin next year

Jennifer Pignolet The Spokesman-Review

After nearly three decades of talking and planning, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is set to begin cleaning up mining waste in the upper Coeur d’Alene River Basin next year.

The EPA on Tuesday released its final version of a $635 million, 30-year plan to remove heavy metals pollution from North Idaho’s Silver Valley, with possibly hundreds of jobs created in the process.

Dan Opalski, EPA Region 10 Superfund director, said cleanup work in the area – one of the nation’s largest Superfund sites – is under way as a result of other projects, but work under the basin cleanup plan could begin next spring or summer.

“It really does set the stage for continuing to build on successes we’ve had at the upper basin,” Opalski said.

He said the work will be done in phases and could create a few hundred jobs in the area.

The EPA will release an implementation proposal in the next few weeks detailing how and when the work will be done. The public will be invited to comment on the implementation plan, similar to feedback the EPA requested on the scope of the project. More than 6,700 comments poured in, many of them concerned about the project’s original scope and cost.

Opalski said the EPA’s first version of the plan, released in 2010, was expected to cost upward of $1.3 billion and could have taken up to 90 years to complete.

In February, that plan was whittled to $740 million and 30 years. Cut from the original proposal was a $300 million project to install a liner on 10 miles of the Coeur d’Alene River’s South Fork, due to the expense and engineering challenges. The number of sites to be cleaned up also was downsized from 345 to 145.

Of the 200 mines and mills cut from the list, Opalski said, many were determined to fall under the scope of other cleanup projects or were too far away from residential areas to be made a priority.

Opalski said the updated $635 million price tag is a result of a more specific, efficient plan.

“We’re looking to really get the best human-health and environmental bang for the buck,” he said.

EPA Region 10 spokesman Mark MacIntyre said the elimination of 200 sites means no roads have to be built to access the sites and no streams connected to those areas will be repaired. Cutting those indirect costs wasn’t factored into the $740 million estimate, he said, and account for a majority of the drop in cost.

Funding for the project, MacIntyre said, will come from three main sources: a bankruptcy settlement with a refinery company that worked in the area; a settlement with Hecla Mining Co.; and taxpayer Superfund dollars through the EPA.

Opalski said the EPA is still determining how work will be dispersed over the 30-year time frame, and community impact will be considered. One goal, he said, is to make job creation consistent but not spend too much money too quickly.

Whether the EPA will hit all its goals with a tighter budget remains to be seen, Opalski said.

Bill Adams, the EPA’s Coeur d’Alene Basin Cleanup Team leader, said design work has already begun on two high-priority projects of the finished plan: cleanup of the Ninemile and Canyon Creek watersheds. In those projects, the EPA expects to address a combined 2.8 million cubic yards of material, such as contaminated tailings, waste rock and floodplain sediments.

The Silver Valley community has dealt with more than a century of mining that left heavy-metal pollution washing downstream into Lake Coeur d’Alene and the Spokane River during high water and flooding. Health concerns for residents and wildlife include exposure to lead, arsenic, cadmium and other metals.

“Our priority still remains human-health protection,” Adams said.

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