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Posts Tagged ‘Superfund’

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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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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Migrating birds can’t read the signs in the lower Coeur d’Alene basin.  They don’t know that much of the basin is contaminated with heavy metals, and they don’t know that simply landing to rest and to feed could be lethal.  Every year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service collects at least 150 dead tundra swans in the Coeur d’Alene River corridor. Short of cleaning up the entire mess, which will take decades at the earliest, what can be done to keep the birds from getting sick?

The EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with the help of Ducks Unlimited, recently restored a 400 acre wetland tract just north of Medimont, with the purpose of making it clean and safe for birds and wildlife. But also, as an EPA staffer put it, “We want to make it as attractive as possible, so birds say, ‘Let’s overnight here!'” The wetland restoration needed to be irresistibly good.

This week’s meeting, noon Thursday at the Iron Horse, features a fascinating discussion with Brian Spears from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on this natural resource restoration in the lower Coeur d’Alene basin. The restoration project, begun in 2007, is showing truly remarkable results. It is, by design, the most attractive wetland on the river. Birds are flocking to it.

 

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