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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Conservation group urges more focus on Lake CdA as EPA prepares updated review of mining cleanup

People relax by Lake Coeur d'Alene on a summer Friday near North Idaho  College. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)

Clean up Lake Coeur d’Alene.

That’s the message an Idaho conservation group and its supporters are sending to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Idaho Conservation League is urging the public to comment on the EPA’s five-year review of the its ongoing cleanup of the Silver Valley’s mining legacy. Although the review looks specifically at the effectiveness of the ongoing cleanup of the Coeur d’Alene Basin, it also allows for public input, an opening which ICL and others are capitalizing on.

“These five-year reviews have always included a brief status update on the lake,” said Matt Nykiel a conservation associate for ICL. “We’re advocating for a more thorough review of the lake.”

It’s no coincidence that Nykiel and others are pushing the issue now.

Although Lake Coeur d’Alene is included in the federal Superfund site, it does not receive Superfund money and is not part of the EPA’s cleanup plans. That’s despite the fact that the roughly 75 million tons of sediment polluted with lead and other heavy metals are a direct result of upstream mining.

Instead, since 2002, lake cleanup efforts have been guided by the Lake Management Plan.

At that time, state and local leaders worried that the stigma of the Superfund site would destroy the tourism industry. So instead of developing a cleanup plan itself, the EPA helped broker a deal. Lake cleanup would be handled by the lake’s two managers: the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and the state of Idaho.

A top-stated priority of that plan? Keeping phosphorous levels down in the lake.

Oxygenated water acts like a cap on the heavy metals, keeping them locked in the sediment. Increased plant growth in the lake, spurred by higher levels of phosphorous, threatens to reduce the lake’s oxygen to a point at which the heavy metals could become suspended in the lake water.

If that happens, Lake Coeur d’Alene would become a toxic body of water.

Since the 1990s, the volume of phosphorus flowing into the lake has roughly doubled, according to a 2017 presentation on the topic.

At the same time, a warming climate will increase the likelihood of those metals resuspending as snowpack levels decrease and water temperatures rise during the summer months.

Last year, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe withdrew from the agreement, citing the continued degradation of water quality as human development and logging have led to increased levels of phosphorous and plant growth.

The withdrawal gutted the management plan. Since a 2001 Supreme Court ruling reaffirming the tribe’s ownership of lake Coeur d’Alene, the tribe has owned the “beds and banks” of the southern third of Lake Coeur d’Alene, while the state of Idaho manages the rest. No lakewide action is possible unless the two entities work together.

“I just think it’s a good opportunity for the people to express their views,” said Phil Cernera, director of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s lake department. “I believe the sentiment of the folks around CdA lake, they’re beginning to shift.”

This is the EPA’s fifth five-year review. In the past, reviews contained little more than a paragraph discussing the lake, Cernera said. He hopes this year is different, although he, like everyone else, is commenting on a review that is not yet public.

Since the last review in 2015, public sentiment is shifting.

More than 200 people attended last year’s Our Gem Symposium, an event record. What’s more, county and city leaders expressed support for aggressive cleanup actions. The symposium is an annual conference focused on the lake’s water quality.

“The lake has had her heart pierced,” said Steve Wilson, former CEO of the Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce at the symposium. “She is wounded, there’s no question about that. It’s now time to bind that wound and to begin the nurturing process.”

At the symposium Gov. Brad Little ordered a third-party review of lake health data.

In an email, Coeur d’Alene Mayor Steve Widmyer said he supported Little’s order, although he noted that he is not well-versed in the ins-and-outs of the EPA review.

“I do believe that we need to take all the necessary steps to protect Lake Coeur d’Alene,” he said. “It is a crown jewel of our community.”

Cernera, with the tribe, supports the conservation league’s call for comments. In particular, he noted the importance of focusing on the heavy metals trapped in the lake bottom. In the past, EPA officials have dismissed concerns about phosphorous content saying that many lakes in the country have nutrient problems, he said.

Focusing on the metals in the sediment, Cernera said, prevents the EPA from using their “lock, stock and barrel response.”

The EPA did not respond to a request for comment.

Still, while Cernera encourages the public to comment on the five-year review, whether or not the EPA develops a cleanup plan for Lake Coeur d’Alene ultimately depends on the state.

“It’s all a matter of the state of Idaho,” Cernera said.

As for the tribe? He said they’d welcome a federal cleanup plan along with the money and resources that would bring.

“Man, we are done with having our lake treated as a toxic dump,” he said.

Correction: The article incorrectly described the 2001 Supreme Court ruling reaffirming the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s ownership of Lake Coeur d’Alene. The story has been updated.