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Posts Tagged ‘Silver Valley’

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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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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Late last week, we were forwarded an email from Greg Clark with the U.S. Geological Survey, whose team did some water monitoring during the flood event January 18th of this year. The monitoring in Harrison, where the Coeur d’Alene River flows into Coeur d’Alene Lake, shows that the conveyor belt of contamination from the upper basin to the lower basin was particularly bad during the flood this year.

According to Clark’s email, a measurement of the concentration of lead in the water at Harrison was the second highest ever recorded, the highest being a major flood in 1996. Also, the sample had the highest concentration of zinc and highest concentration of cadmium in more than 20 years. Clark said, “Based on these numbers, the load of lead delivered to the lake on January 18 alone was about 160 metric tons, or about 75% of the mean annual load of lead delivered to the lake during 2004 through 2009.” (Our emphasis.) However, Clark noted that sampling at the Lake’s outlet on January 20 was low, indicating that most of the lead settled to the lake bottom.

More disturbingly, however, is the measurement of flooding right before the peak. According to Clark, the river flow at Cataldo was higher than what was measured at the peak of the 2008 flood, but river the flow at Harrison was quite a bit lower. Clark says that this flow data indicates that a great deal of the water — and its accompanying sediment and metal contamination — was dumped into the lateral lakes along the lower basin. As Clark somewhat understated it in the email: “Obviously not good news as far as wildlife is concerned.”

Aerial photo of Coeur d'Alene River flooding at Harrison in 2008

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We sent a version of this post to our friends and members earlier this week, and we thought we’d share our thoughts on 2010 here as well. We’ve had a pretty good year at KEA.

As this end-of-year letter is being written, the Kootenai County Commissioners are finally completing work on the long-awaited comprehensive plan. As you know, KEA has been involved at every step of the way. Although the final product is not all that we would have liked it to be, the new plan is still a vast improvement over the hopelessly out-of-date version currently in effect. KEA’s friends and members can take credit for most of the improvements within the new plan, and for fending off attempts to derail those improvements by developers, builders and misguided business interests.

In other 2010 accomplishments, KEA’s Community Roots program started up Kootenai County’s first, and only, charitable CSA in Dalton Gardens, making CSA fresh produce accessible to food stamp recipients. Meanwhile, the Roots program also maintained our plot at the Shared Harvest community garden and continued our fresh food deliveries to food assistance facilities in Coeur d’Alene.
KEA continues to comment on U.S. Forest Service proposals in the region, and was successful this past summer in pressuring the local USFS office to release overdue monitoring reports. We continue to be engaged in very preliminary collaborative conversations about forest management throughout the Panhandle, and we increased our coalition and coordination efforts with fellow conservationists and forest activists throughout the region.

In the past year, KEA spent a great deal of time and effort on difficult and controversial water quality concerns. With our partnership with the Environmental Law Clinic at Gonzaga Law School, KEA was successful in forcing the Federal Highway Administration to correct serious deficiencies in its Fernan Lake Road reconstruction project. KEA also provided substantial comments into the Spokane River cleanup process and EPA’s proposed cleanup for the Upper Coeur d’Alene Basin.

We know that the most successful strategy for environmental protection is a well-educated community. This is why KEA has worked hard to improve our communications and outreach efforts.  We have utilized social media to extend our reach to a wider audience than ever before via Facebook, Twitter and this KEA blog and we continue our work to improve our newsletters, e-news, and website.  Also, our 38th year of noon meetings at the Iron Horse may have been our best so far.

In October, our Second Annual Junk2Funk Eco-Fashion Show bigger, better, and more successful than the previous year. With more than 35 artists participating in this chic eco-fashion event, our annual event has made environmental/conservation awareness positively fun.

Looking ahead to 2011, we expect to make more progress, and new progress. This spring and summer, look for KEA to begin a new phase of our Hayden Lake Project with some demonstration projects in collaboration with local schools.

Look to KEA to gain greater protections for beloved Cougar Bay. And look to KEA to lead the efforts to re-write the zoning and development regulations in Kootenai County to protect natural and scenic resources, maintain rural areas, stop sprawl, and protect our quality of life.

If you’ve heard me speak about KEA, you’ve probably heard me say it it before, the most important prerequisite for environmental protection in our region is a healthy KEA. The strength, breadth and commitment of our grassroots members and supporters are what gives us influence and power to do the critical conservation work that none of us can do alone.


Please consider an end of year contribution. If you’re not a member, consider joining. If you are a member, consider an additional contribution. If you’re a contributor, consider contributing a little extra this year. We know that this economy is tough and your household finances are stretched thin. At the same time, the threats to our environment and quality of life remain, while KEA’s already-tight budget is projected to be even tighter in the new year.

We accomplish what we accomplish because of your support.

From all of us at KEA, our very best for 2011.

Terry Harris
Executive Director

 

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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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