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Seems the Yellowstone River will be dealing with what the Gulf of Mexico has been dealing with for more than a year now. And we are again reminded that that cleaning things up is so much harder than not making the mess in the first place.

This time, the still-high Yellowstone River flows are illustrating how pollutants are transported far downstream making a mess on shorelines for miles and miles. Sound familiar? The Yellowstone River is facing this one-time high-water catastrophe, with a deep-pocketed responsible party, and an oil pollutant, much of which will disperse and simply evaporate.  Our Coeur d’Alene River gets tons of mining waste every flood, with heavy metal pollutants that don’t disperse and never go away.

With our local cleanup going into a third decade, with at least five more decades of cleanup to go, we are heartbroken for the Yellowstone River and our friends in Montana. Sadly, we know what it’s like.

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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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In our line of work, we often need to remind ourselves that not everyone knows what we’re talking about. When we advocate for cleanup of the Coeur d’Alene basin, for example, we sometimes forget that not everyone knows that it’s a big mess.

Recently, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and Idaho’s DEQ did a survey of what people know – and don’t know – about the Lake and its environmental problems. At noon on Thursday at the Iron Horse, Rebecca Stevens from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and Becki Witherow from DEQ will discuss the study.

We’ve seen a preview of presentation, and the results are fascinating. Most area residents know that the lake is indeed cleaner than it was in the 70s, but few understood that mining wastes remain a problem and few knew that metals are still entering the lake. Residents were generally aware of bank erosion problems from boat wakes, and they were generally aware that growth and development are related to water quality. But there was limited understanding in the general public about the Lake Management Plan and the details of the Coeur d’Alene basin cleanup. There was very little understanding of the roles of different agencies involved in the Lake’s water quality efforts. A good percentage, though, thought mandatory measures were appropriate to protect water quality.

So, in other words, our work is still cut out for us.

 

 

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Kootenai Environmental Alliance, along with Idaho Conservation League, Spokane Riverkeeper, Idaho Rivers United and The Lands Council submitted comments today to the EPA on the proposed amendment to the Upper Coeur d’Alene Basin Superfund Record of Decision.

The comments to the controversial EPA cleanup plan focused on several key points: (1) to ensure that the plan is protective of human health and the environment, (2) to ensure the best protection for the investment in remedies already in place, (3) to recommend improvements in community involvement and transparency as the cleanup moves forward, (4) to recommend improvements to the cleanup proposal, and (5) to recommend acceleration of the entire cleanup. The comments were also highly critical of Hecla Mining’s substitute 10-year plan, which would not be sufficient under the law, and would not meet appropriate cleanup and water quality standards.  Read the comments in their entirety here [a pdf document].

The comment period closes on Tuesday, after which, the EPA will review the comments and provide a response.  The response, along with a final decision on the cleanup, is expected in mid-2011.

 

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We’ve heard from a number of friends and members that they are being robocalled from the phony front group “Citizens for a Prosperous Silver Valley” which opposes the proposed cleanup in the Silver Valley.

We wish we could give better advice as to how to shut down the annoying phone calls, but we’re afraid that according to the Supreme Court the free speech rights of mining corporations is protected by the Constitution, and the national “Do Not Call Registry” does not apply to non-commercial calls.

For what it’s worth, the phone calls should end soon. The comment period for the draft EPA cleanup plan for the Silver Valley ends Tuesday. Or you can fight back. You can quickly and easily send comments electronically via the Idaho Conservation League here.

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The November 23 deadline for comments on the proposed EPA cleanup for the upper Coeur d’Alene basin is fast approaching, and we received the following email from EPA regarding how comments are being handled:

Many people are wondering how EPA is handling public comments on the Proposed Cleanup Plan for the Upper Basin, and when they might hear something back.  Here are answers those questions.

The public comment period on EPA’s Proposed Cleanup Plan closes November 23.  EPA has received hundreds of comments.  It will take time for the agency to consider and respond to all of them. EPA takes each comment seriously.   The agency is aware that the cleanup is complex, and is a topic which is deeply important to local citizens.  EPA has received comments both in favor of and against the plan.  EPA will consider changes to the proposed cleanup plan in response to public input.

All comments are being entered into an electronic database.  Comments will be logged individually and in categories.  This process ensures that each comment is accounted for and helps with an orderly, thorough response.  The agency will prepare a document called a “Response to Comments.”  It will include both a response to each comment and a summary response to each issue.

The Response to Comments will be issued to the public at the same time as the ROD (Record of Decision) Amendment, sometime in 2011.  The ROD Amendment is the final decision document.  It will describe the selected cleanup alternative.   The public will be able to request a hard copy of these documents and find them at select local libraries and on EPA’s website.

Website:  http://go.usa.gov/igD

 

We also noted today that Gov. Butch Otter submitted his comments on the plan. Otter, evidently, is supporting a much more limited cleanup, with a defined endpoint, coincidentally similar to Hecla Mining’s proposal.

Like Gov. Otter, we too wish that the work wouldn’t go on forever. But Otter’s solution almost guarantees that it will. Doing it his way — only cleaning up part of the basin and not treating clearly-contaminated water — means that water quality standards will never be met, and the cleanup will go on and on and on. In fact, in his letter, Otter makes an ironic request to EPA to “commit to cash flow and management of the settlement funds” to ensure funds are available “well into the future.”

Also, we think Gov. Otter should be a bit more honest about rhetoric in his letter about how EPA will “wildly spend public resources” and how it doesn’t “live within the people’s means.” This cleanup is funded primarily with trust funds from the polluters that made the mess in the first place, not taxpayers. His grandstanding is not helpful.

There is still time to send your comments. (Idaho Conservation League has made it super-easy to do so from their website.) EPA needs to hear voices calling for a comprehensive, complete, permanent cleanup. Not the incomplete option proposed by the Governor.

 

 

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Despite some of the rhetoric coming from opponents of the proposed Superfund cleanup of the upper Coeur d’Alene basin, “EPA go home” isn’t an option. In fact, the law is fairly clear why EPA is in the basin and what needs to be done. A quick review of the relevant federal regulations might be helpful.

According to the governing federal regulations, the EPA’s primary purpose in the cleanup process is to select remedies “that eliminate, reduce, or control risks to human health and the environment,” and remedies that “maintain protection over time and minimize untreated waste.”

In selecting a remedy, the EPA is required to meet basic “threshold criteria” that human health and the environment are protected and relevant standards are complied with. Only after the threshold criteria are met, the EPA can apply the “balancing criteria”  of “long term effectiveness and permanence; reduction of toxicity, mobility or volume through treatment; short term effectiveness; implementability; and cost.” State and community acceptance are “modifying criteria” which can help EPA adjust the balance according to comments received.

We are currently drafting our detailed comments, but we are sensitive to the legal obligations of EPA under the law, particularly the threshold criteria.  Overall, we are generally supportive the EPA’s attempts to address these fundamental legal obligations with this particular plan.  In sum, we believe the EPA plan has met the minimum threshold.  (A counterproposal from Helca Mining, on the other hand, does not.) Nevertheless, we will suggest some improvements that would make the remedy more protective of human health and the environment, more protective of remedies already in place, and that would provide better community acceptance. We also would accelerate the timeframes so that the upper basin cleanup might be accomplished more quickly and that a more comprehensive cleanup in the lower basin might proceed earlier.

In our view, the threshold criteria — that human health and the environment are protected, and that relevant cleanup standards are met — are the no-brainer reasons why the EPA plan is necessary. Nevertheless, given the ferocity of opposition to the proposed EPA cleanup, we think it is worth your time too, to remind EPA that you’re supportive of a cleanup meeting the letter and spirit of the law.  Our friends at Idaho Conservation League has made it extremely easy to do so electronically — click here to send EPA an email. Comments are due by November 23rd.

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We have obtained a copy of a cleanup counter-proposal for the upper Coeur d’Alene basin from Hecla Mining, and not surprisingly, the mining company proposes a much shorter, much cheaper, much less comprehensive, cleanup. We’re still weeding through their complicated 378-page, 10-year proposal, but based on a quick skim, we’re skeptical that their plan will meet cleanup standards in our lifetime. Or anyone’s lifetime.

As much as we are loathe to acknowledge it, the cleanup in the upper basin is still a long way from completion.  We’re not exactly happy that the EPA proposal calls for 50 to 90 years of waste cleanup and water treatment for the upper basin.  Unfortunately though, it’s probably a fair assessment of what it takes at current funding levels to clean up the Silver Valley once and for all. Hecla’s proposal — which plans only for the next 10 years and puts off major water treatment efforts – almost guarantees another lengthy EPA administrative process ten years from now.

Instead, we should just agree to get on with it. We should commit to cleaning up the Coeur d’Alene basin — completely, efficiently, to scientific-based standards, and according to the law. The mining industry’s special-interest shortcuts to the cleanup will only delay the restoration of the basin.

Your comments to EPA will help counter the mining industry delay tactics. Our friends at Idaho Conservation League have set up an easy way to send an email to EPA to support the Coeur d’Alene cleanup. Take a couple of minutes to tell EPA that you prefer a comprehensive cleanup over a half-baked one, that you prefer to finish the job rather than take half-measures with no end in sight, and that restoration of the Coeur d’Alene ecosystem is important to you, your family, and to the health of the region.

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It is, officially, National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week. It’s an annual coordinated concentration of education and awareness regarding lead poisoning, which is recognized by the CDC as the number one environmental health threat to children in the U.S. In most parts of the country, the focus is on deteriorating lead-based paint, which was widely used in residential housing prior to being banned in 1978.

However, in our region, we have another exposure pathway for lead poisoning — the legacy of mine waste that pollutes shorelines and waterways throughout the Coeur d’Alene basin. Because of lead and other heavy metals, an EPA cleanup has been ongoing in the Basin for a couple of decades, and a controversial proposal would have the cleanup continue in the upper basin for the next 50 to 90 years.

At hearings and public meetings on the proposed EPA cleanup plan, some residents question the need for the cleanup because the perception that there aren’t any remaining health issues in the Silver Valley.  Unfortunately, while gains have been made, threats to public health in the valley do indeed remain.  Sampling shows that contamination from heavy metals is widespread and diffuse throughout the Silver Valley, with contamination along nearly every drainage.  The Silver Valley contamination contains numerous toxic metals, most notably lead, that exceed human health criteria.  Human exposure to lead mainly comes through contact or ingestion of surface waters, inhaling dust, ingesting dust or soil.

Furthermore, while previous cleanup efforts have improved the water quality of the surface waters in the Silver Valley many stretches of those waters are still seriously impaired by heavy metals.  As EPA notes in its proposal, “[t]he risks are neither hypothetical nor potential future risks—the risks continue to exist today.”   The same is true of groundwater, which “is severely affected and contributes to surface water contamination.”

Lead poisoning is particularly insidious because the effects of lead poisoning can be subtle and indistinguishable from other common ailments.  Early symptoms include: persistent fatigue, irritability, loss of appetite, stomach discomfort/constipation, reduced attention span, and insomnia.  Prolonged or chronic exposure in adults can result in poor muscle circulation, nerve damage, increased blood pressure, and reproduced sperm count. Pregnant women are particularly susceptible to lead poisoning as it can affect fetal development (even at very low exposure levels).

Children are the most susceptible to lead poisoning for a number of reasons: children are exposed to relatively greater quantities of lead per unit of body mass; children are developing and growing; children are more likely to have nutritional deficiencies conducive to magnifying lead’s toxicological effects; and children are more likely to ingest soil, inhale dust particles, and consume water while recreating.  These are some of the reasons why lead poisoning in children remains the single most significant human health risk within the Superfund site.

For children, even very low levels of lead exposure can cause brain damage and/or mental retardation, behavioral problems, hyperactivity, and developmental delays.  Although the current lead blood level of concern for children is 10 ug/dL, recent studies indicate that there is no threshold level of safety and adverse effects of lead can occur at far lower levels.  Between 2000 and 2004, fifteen percent of children tested in the Silver Valley had blood lead levels higher than 10 ug/dL. More recent data show average levels of lead in Silver Valley children is near national averages. Although these recent averages sound promising, the number of children actually being tested is quite small. Given that there is really no safe level of lead in children, it remains clear that lead contamination levels in the Silver Valley needs to be reduced as much as practicable in order to avoid risks of cognitive and other developmental impairments in resident children.

Toxic exposure in children should not form the basis of a political debate; the debate should be scientific. And the scientific debate is long over.  Although lead and other heavy metals have been reduced, those substances still exist in the Silver Valley at levels that are hazardous to human health, particularly the health of children.  And they still flow through teh valley with each flood season. This is an ongoing problem that will not go away and will impact the Silver Valley for many years to come. So, while the EPA’s proposed cleanup plan might not be a perfect solution to the Valley’s mine waste problem, failing to act is not an option.  Postponing or avoiding the cleanup only serves to increase the potential for toxic exposures to the most vulnerable members of our communities — our children.

Jeff Briggs, our summer legal intern, contributed to this article.

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We heard earlier in the week that the EPA would probably be extending the comment period for cleanup proposal for the upper Coeur d’Alene Basin. Well, it is indeed true. Commenters will now have another 90 days to put their thoughts together. Here’s hoping that the comments are more carefully considered and better informed than what we heard at the public hearing and listening session these last couple of weeks.

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