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Archive for the ‘Lower Coeur d’Alene Basin’ Category

As the cleanup of mine waste contamination in the Coeur d’Alene River basin moves ever-so-slowly downstream, government agencies are beginning to prepare. Studies are being done, computer models assembled, and basic data gathering is well underway. In response, some citizens are also coming together to make sure that community input is not forgotten.

At an initial exploratory meeting October 18th, community members and agency officials gathered at the Rose Lake Historical Society to discuss collaboration as a new way forward. In a facilitated discussion, local residents, farmers, ranchers, conservation and environmental interests, homeowner associations, agency officials got a very quick briefing on the environmental cleanup problems in the lower Coeur d’Alene and then considered whether more formal collaboration was worth pursuing.

Collaboration is used increasingly nationwide for complex, multi-stakeholder conservation problems, such as land management, forestry, and environmental cleanup. The process is designed to facilitate information exchange and to find common ground.

Susan Mitchell and Julie Bowen in Rose Lake. Photo by KEA BlackberryCam

At the Rose Lake meeting, community members raised a number of questions and concerns and areas for further discussion: What are the early opportunities for community involvement in the cleanup? How do we know which cleanup options are on the table and which cleanup options are being eliminated? What agencies are responsible for flood control decision-making in the lower basin? What about new repositories? Are agencies looking at innovative cleanup technologies? What sorts of rules, regulations and standards apply to the cleanup? What can agencies other than EPA contribute to the cleanup?

In mid-November, the Basin Environmental Improvement Project Commission (BEIPC), which manages the cleanup, will decide whether to allow the new collaborative to be established under its organizational umbrella.

We think the BEIPC – itself a creature of Idaho state law that infused local representation and input into the federal Superfund process – should show strong support for the collaborative.  Especially after the very encouraging meeting in Rose Lake.

The thoughtful ideas from local residents in the lower Coeur d’Alene basin should be encouraged and facilitated. Moreover, without early community involvement, alternatives may be narrowed, options eliminated, and opportunities lost. The collaboration establishes a venue and a process for meaningful engagement with the citizens who will live with the cleanup for years and will feel the impact most directly. This grassroots call for collaboration in the lower basin should be answered by the BEIPC Commissioners with a resounding yes.

 

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Superfund cleanup isn’t limited to the Silver Valley. The Coeur d’Alene River, the chain lakes and wetlands from Cataldo to Harrison are contaminated with heavy metals from the last century of mining upstream. Every flood season, another layer of contamination is deposited throughout the drainage.

The EPA, charged with the cleanup responsibilities, is in the process of finalizing a controversial plan for the upper basin, but the next area slated for cleanup is the lower Coeur d’Alene River basin from Cataldo to Harrison.  In fact, EPA has begun initial studies on the ways contaminated sediment moves in the Coeur d’Alene River and lower basin waterways and wetlands. Based on the scientific and engineering studies, and as constrained by Superfund laws, EPA will develop a comprehensive cleanup plan for the lower basin over the course of the next several years.

KEA has been part of a small group meeting since May 2010 to develop a better way for citizens, stakeholders, and agencies to work together on cleanup in the Lower Basin.  We’ve created the Lower Basin Citizen Collaborative.

Why a Collaborative?

In a lower basin cleanup, there will be a wide range of interests and values to be weighed and considered: public health, wildlife protection, recreation, private property rights and land-use planning, watershed protection and restoration, cultural resources, job preservation and creation, economic development, and water quality and fisheries.  All of these will need to be weighed in a context that should include sufficient public education, meaningful public involvement, and science-based and evidence-based decision making by the agencies.

Collaboratives provide a way to address controversial natural resource issues, making sure everyone has a seat at the table. In many locations in the U.S., they are achieving broad citizen, stakeholder, and agency satisfaction. This collaborative model is currently used in Shoshone County and elsewhere in Idaho for forest and land management and collaboratives are now being used or proposed in other parts of the country for land management and complex environmental problems.

In our envisioning of the collaborative process for the lower basin, everyone is invited to engage early in the process. Competing interests work out consensus-based solutions together. Participants work for outcomes that meet or exceed federal and state regulations, and agencies shift their focus to connect with, rather than direct, the collaborative effort.  In theory, if stakeholders work together, cleanup decisions can be made with everyone’s interests considered. Rather than agency decisions being handed down unilaterally, collaboratives work toward outcomes that everyone feels they can live with.

Collaboratives can be controversial, they don’t always work, and they’re not always appropriate. However, this cleanup in the lower basin will be extremely complex and will have a significant impact on the landscape. In this instance, we believe local voices involved in the planning from the beginning will make for a better cleanup. And we believe a collaborative will be the best venue to engage the local voices.

Reaching Out

The Lower Basin Collaborative is ready to launch and we invite your participation. A kickoff meeting will be held next Tuesday, the 18th, 2:30 pm, at the Rose Lake Historical Society Building, 14917 S. Queen Street & Hwy. 3 in Cataldo.  If you want to know more or be involved at any level, let us hear from you. Write us at LowerBasinCollaborative@gmail.com.  Stay up to date at lowerbasincollaborative.wordpress.com.

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It’s been a week since Conoco-Phillips says they noticed a “drop in pressure” in their gasoline pipeline between Billings and Spokane. And we’re still waiting for an explanation.

Booms are in the Coeur d’Alene River. Workers in hard hats and pickup trucks are thick in the Enaville to Cataldo stretch of pipeline in question. Promises of testing and inspection and results have been issued, but we’re still waiting for results. Even if there’s no leak and the whole “loss of pressure” thing is some sort of unfortunate technological false alarm, it shouldn’t take a week to figure it out.

Lately, we’ve heard from several nearby residents now that cleanup workers and their “security” are hard-line and tight-lipped about what is happening along the possibly leaky pipeline. We understand that it must be frustrating to the company that it can’t find the problem, but it’s even more frustrating to the nearby public. Indeed, information has been lacking from the beginning. When did the company and responsible agencies plan to tell the public? KEA, from what we can tell, was first to break the news.

We’re certainly hoping that whatever the problem is, it isn’t catastrophic. Still, and regardless, this whole situation is not acceptable. Under no circumstance should it take a week to diagnose a gasoline pipeline problem.

 

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From an update we received this morning, it seems they still haven’t found a spill but still haven’t found the problem in the pipeline yet either. According to this EPA update, there are some 3000 barrels of oil in the suspect section of pipeline.

CURRENT STATUS:   At this time, no loss of pipeline integrity has been discovered, to date.  The crews have completed surface and aerial reconnaissance of a 7 mile section of pipeline between Enaville, ID and Cataldo, ID with no evidence of a leak discovered.  Based on the latest information, crews have isolated the pressure drop to this 7 mile section of pipeline and is concentrating their investigation efforts in this location.

Five surface reconnaissance crews and two aerial reconnaissance sorties were deployed today.  The responsible party estimates that approximately 3,091 barrels of unleaded gasoline still remain in the suspect section of the pipe (7 mile stretch).  The responsible party has approximately 80 personnel in the field conducting command and control and reconnaissance with crews ready to initiate emergency response and sampling, if needed.

NEXT STEPS:  An acoustic mission ball (tool to check pipe integrity) is being shipped to the site and will be deployed tomorrow.  This device will be launched in the pipeline and will acoustically listen for leaks as it travels through the suspect section.  The timeline for the deployment of the acoustic survey instrument is approximately tomorrow afternoon.  Transit time will be approximately 15 hours with preliminary data being available from the tool sometime midday Friday, 7 October 2011.

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We thought the Yellowstone River oil spill this past summer was a little close for comfort. Well, guess what. We got word late yesterday afternoon, with some additional information trickling in to us today that a 10-inch Conoco-Phillips pipeline, pumping unleaded gasoline from Billings to Spokane is suffering a “slow drop in pressure” somewhere between Pritchard and Cataldo.  The current focus of attention is in the Enaville to Cataldo stretch.

From an email from Sandy Von Behren in Kootenai County’s Department of Emergency Management:

Yellowstone Pipeline (Conoco/Phillips) identified a small reduction in pressure in their 10” high pressure petroleum pipeline between Prichard and Cataldo this past Saturday.  Yellowstone reps have walked the entire line between Prichard and Cataldo and have not located any indication of the leak on the surface.  There are a couple of areas where the pipeline is exposed in the Coeur d’Alene River, but they were aware of this before and had sought permits to mitigate that particular issue. 

They are currently in full response running 24-7 operations with an estimated 40 staff in place and another 40 coming this way.  They plan to purge the line of fuel and place a pig (a pipeline inspection gauge) in the pipeline using water to propel it as they continue to assess for any leakage.  If they do not find any leakage they may have to start digging up the pipeline in the area of concern.  They have placed skirting and absorbent booms as a precautionary measure in the Coeur d’Alene River just below the community of Kingston and also at the Cataldo boat launch.  Yellowstone Pipeline is setting up a command post this afternoon at the Silver Mountain Resort.

An update this morning from DEQ states:

 Saturday the [Conoco-Philips] control center noted a slow drop in pressure in a 10 inch pipeline carrying unleaded gasoline between Prichard and Cataldo.  C-P responded by lowering the pressure in the line from 900 psi to less than 400 psi where it currently remains. 

C-P has monitors watching the river crossings.  A containment boom has been placed at Cataldo below the boat launch and along River Road at Kingston.  C-P currently is aware of two pipeline exposures in the river, one near Silver Bridge on the NF CdA River and one that was discovered last week at Kingston.  The Silver Bridge exposure has grout bags draped over the pipe until a more permanent fix is done next year.  The other exposure remains as it was found. 

The area of interest is now between Enaville and Cataldo.

 

Here’s hoping we don’t have (another) huge mess on our hands in the Coeur d’Alene basin.

 

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Announced Monday and likely to be approved by a federal court in the next month or two, Hecla Mining and the U.S. EPA have settled longstanding Superfund litigation. The settlement establishes Hecla’s contribution toward the costs of the Coeur d’Alene basin minewaste cleanup. According to news reports, Hecla has agreed to pay some $263 million toward the cleanup which is estimated to ultimately cost more than $2 billion.

Although the accounting and apportionment of the funds will be complex, Hecla’s settlement will essentially be added to previous settlements – particularly the ASARCO settlement for some $452 million announced last year – to fund the bulk of the outstanding cleanup effort from this point forward.

With each flood season, historic mine wastes continue to contaminate some 160 miles of shoreline and riverbank in the Coeur d’Alene basin with heavy metal pollution. As a result, the basin constitutes one of the largest and most expensive Superfund cleanups in the U.S. The metals, which are at levels above federal health-based cleanup standards, are a danger to both humans who live and play in the region, as well as fish and wildlife that live there. For example, annually, some 150 tundra swans die from lead poisoning related causes during their migration stopover.

Prior to this settlement, Hecla had been a fierce opponent to EPA’s plans for a comprehensive cleanup plan for the upper Coeur d’Alene basin. Those plans, rolled out to the public last summer, are expected to be finalized soon. Now that Hecla has settled its obligations to the cleanup, and has reportedly achieved some level of protection for its ongoing mining operations, its vocal opposition to the cleanup should quiet.

Indeed, with the litigation largely resolved, the financing largely settled, and with the cleanup plans for the upper basin to be approved soon, the Coeur d’Alene basin cleanup may be entering a new era. Collaboration and cooperation should be much more prevalent as the cleanup continues from the upper reaches of the Coeur d’Alene basin down to the Coeur d’Alene Lake.

In fact, planning for the lower basin cleanup is just now getting underway. Along those lines, a more formal collaborative effort is in the early stages of being formed to engage stakeholders in designing the lower basin cleanup work. The cleanup of the waterways and shorelines between Cataldo and Harrison will be complex and expensive. Indeed, some approaches could still be quite controversial. However, without the specter of ongoing litigation, the cleanup should proceed less acrimoniously. We certainly look forward to getting on with it.

 

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Tundra swans are dying again this year. Like they do every year.

Lured to the beautiful lower Coeur d’Alene basin’s waterways and wetlands for rest and food, the birds end up, quite literally, choked on sediments contaminated with lead. The lead, of course, is flushed downstream by flooding from the legacy of mining in the Silver Valley. Each spring runoff season brings a fresh coating of contamination. Each spring migration season brings 150 or more swan carcasses.

According to Idaho Fish and Game, this year’s late spring is causing the swans to stay over longer in the basin, which will likely lead to more mortality.  Lead poisoning is particularly hard on tundra swans because it shuts down their digestive systems, causing them to starve. Some 80% of the lower Coeur d’Alene wetlands are contaminated enough to be lethal to swans. More than 92% of swan deaths in the basin are due to contamination.

Recent data presented to a committee of the Basin Environmental Improvement Project Commission, the agency responsible for monitoring and guiding cleanup efforts, showed that, indeed, January flooding caused widespread contamination.

Typical runoff from the Upper Coeur d’Alene mining districts will deposit sediments with 2000 or 3000 parts per million of lead contamination downstream. In the high water flows from this past January, sediment deposits were more like 5000 parts per million. As the scientists explained, larger flows are moving more particles and bigger particles and thus spreading more contamination.

The most disturbing thing, however, is that the level of contamination that triggers cleanup action in the Basin is 530 parts per million. In other words, in every year, in every flood season, the lower Coeur d’Alene basin is contaminated beyond levels that are safe.

Regulators continue to consider final approval for the cleanup plan for the upper Coeur d’Alene basin, but it might still be years before there’s even a preliminary plan for the lower Coeur d’Alene. Unfortunately, it looks to be another couple of decades before this mess gets cleaned up and birds will be safe.

 

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