Northern Idaho's mining waste is now a problem for the Columbia River Basin


HARRISON, Idaho -- Over the last century, the Coeur d'Alene-Spokane River system has washed hundreds of millions of tons of mining waste along riverbottoms, floodplains, lakes and wetlands. Much of this waste contains toxic amounts of lead, cadmium, arsenic and zinc.

Pollution in the basin is so severe, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the river system may not meet water quality standards for 500 years. The EPA expects to announce a final decision on a plan to cleanup the pollution in late June. The first phase will cost $359 million and take 20 to 30 years. Ultimately as much as $1.5 billion might be spent cleaning up the basin.

The waste came from one of the world's greatest lodes of silver, dug in the Silver Valley near the Montana border. Like an open industrial sewer, the rivers have contaminated 1,500-square miles of landscape within the Coeur d'Alene-Spokane basin.

And the toxic metals don't stop there: lead, cadmium and zinc flow into the Columbia River at a rate of a ton or two per day, 400 tons a year, 4,000 tons a decade, according to a study released last year by the U.S. Geological Survey. An upcoming study will account for arsenic discharges to the Columbia.

These studies leave little doubt that Silver Valley mining waste is now a problem for the entire Columbia River Basin. The EPA has only recently begun studies to help understand the impact of this pollution in the Upper Columbia, where testing of sediments shows that safe levels are exceeded for arsenic, cadmium and zinc. Fish tissue testing shows the presence of lead and zinc.

"The Columbia River is a toxic soup, an ecosystem so stressed that any additional sources of heavy metals are not only significant, but could prove deadly to fish and wildlife downstream," says Cyndy deBruler, executive director of Columbia River Keeper.

Washington's campaign to "hijack Idaho's leadership"

A bitter duel over the cleanup has erupted between the states of Idaho and Washington over details and control of the cleanup. Washington senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, Gov. Gary Locke, and the city of Spokane have announced support for EPA's cleanup plan. But Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, in rejecting the EPA plan, proposes to limit the cleanup to "the few areas that need some work." Idaho would remove just 12 percent of the dissolved metals from rivers in the basin, compared with the EPA's plan to remove 57 percent.

Many people on the Idaho side of the border would be happy if the cleanup ended tomorrow. Of the 400,000 people who live in the basin, about 80 percent reside in Washington.

Last fall, at a rally of environmentalists in Spokane, Sen. Cantwell said, "A comprehensive cleanup plan knows no borders."

Such thinking may have sounded reasonable in Spokane, but was curtly dismissed at the Coeur d'Alene Press in Idaho. The paper labeled Cantwell "a new recruit" for Washingtonians in their "campaign to hijack Idaho's leadership position in cleanup of the Coeur d'Alene River Basin."

"Washington interests, whether they be political or a narrowly focused environmental group, should concern themselves directly with the problems they have identified in their own state," the newspaper editorialized last fall.

But the problem with that thinking, says Jim Fisher, an editorial writer for the Lewiston Tribune, is Idaho has never demonstrated the political will requisite for undertaking such a massive cleanup. In the 1980s, the state of Idaho settled lawsuits against mining companies for $4.5 million even though the actual damage may have been worth more than a $1 billion. The state had to settle because the Idaho Legislature stopped funding the lawsuit.

People interviewed for this article could not cite an instance when Idaho cracked down on mining industry pollution on its own volition.

"We're supposed to think they will now," Fisher said.

Idaho asks for delay

Under an agreement signed in April, the EPA has given Idaho the lead role in restoring the river system. Idaho has almost all the votes in a new entity, the Basin Environmental Improvement Project Commission, that will make cleanup decisions. The commission includes the EPA, the states of Idaho and Washington, the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, and three Northern Idaho counties. The counties count as one vote, and all voting members except the state of Washington will have a veto over its decisions.

By giving Idaho such a prominent role, many observers believe it will have all the leverage it needs to weaken, delay and dismantle the cleanup. Idaho is already seeking delay by asking for a National Academy of Science review before it goes into effect.

"This is an outrage," said Mike Peterson, Executive Director for The Lands Council, a Spokane-based group. "The Idaho Congressional Delegation will stop at nothing to undercut the efforts of EPA to cleanup the mining wastes polluting the Coeur d'Alene Basin. Of course we would welcome a National Academy of Science study-so long as there are no delays in completing and implementing the final clean-up plan for the Coeur d'Alene Basin."

"Idaho politicians don't really want to work with Washington," said Bart Haggin, president of The Lands Council, an environmental group based in Spokane. "All we hear is that Idaho wants EPA out of Idaho. To do that Idaho promises to work with Washington instead. Then Idaho blind-sides Washington with this latest effort, acting alone without consultation and intending to further delay the cleanup, thereby damaging the interests of Washington's citizens."

Washington residents believe Idahoans are not being sensitive to the fact that for more than a century, mining pollution entered their state from Idaho - and continues to do so. "We down streamers have a lot a stake in further pointing out how regional of an issue this is," says the Sierra Club's Chase Davis in Spokane.

The EPA says lead poisoning of humans and wildlife is the most serious environmental hazard in the basin. In most places in the country, the EPA has decided that levels over 400 parts per million in soil are not safe. But the EPA contends lead levels of 1000 parts per million will be safe enough in this basin. Some citizen groups say that 1000 parts per million will still pose undue risks, while business, mining and civic groups say the risk is nowhere near as serious.

"The cleanup plan has to meet two threshold criteria, protecting public health and protecting the environment," said Bonnie Gestring of the Mineral Policy Center. She says the EPA plan won't do the job.

Clearcuts make a bad flood worse

On Feb. 8, 1996, a warm rain fell on a heavy snow pack in the Coeur d'Alene River Basin. For the next 12 days, floodwaters devastated the valley with a toxic soup of mining waste, forcing thousands to evacuate their homes. On Feb. 10 alone, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that 900 tons of lead and zinc were flushed into beautiful Lake Coeur d'Alene.

Serious flooding is a common occurance in the basin. On Jan. 8, 2002, another 60 tons of lead washed into the lake during a relatively minor flood. A much bigger flood in April 2002 moved even more lead into the lake. But the EPA in its public statements has yet to warn residents about this contamination on the move. The agency said in a March 2 advisory that spring flooding would "not result in excessive scouring and there should not be a lot of metals in the mud."

Studies after the 1996 floods showed that clearcuts and logging roads in the basin can make a bad flood have an even greater impact downstream. Healthy forests can act like sponges, softening the impact of catastrophic flooding with their great capacity for absorbing water. But the Coeur d'Alene National Forest has been cutover and roaded more than almost every other National Forest.

With so much vegetation removed, the landscape acts like a sieve when heavy flooding occurs. Hundred-year floods are now occurring with deadly, destructive frequency in the basin. As a Forest Service hydrologist told the Spokane Spokesman-Review last fall, "There's no question this drainage has been hammered. It's been killed. That's what we're still paying for."

But the EPA does not address forest issues in the plan.

"The draft cleanup plan's omission of the Coeur d'Alene watershed is glaring," says Dr. John Osborn, a Spokane physician and conservation chair for the Sierra Club's Northern Rockies Chapter,. "A final cleanup plan needs to include enforceable watershed management agreements. Forest canopies should be allowed to grow back, and logging roads removed. Restoration and flood-prevention should be given the highest priority."

Unless the Bush administration takes these actions, Osborn says, "toxic floods of the Coeur d'Alene will continue dumping millions of pounds of lead into Lake Coeur d'Alene, further polluting the Spokane River."

Other issues in the EPA plan:

South Fork
Most of the mining occurred along the South Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River. Zinc levels double when the river flows through an enormous heap of contaminated rock in downtown Kellogg, known as the Central Impoundment Facility. Mining companies and the Bunker Hill smelter dumped waste there beginning in the 1920s. And though it was closed in 1968, the heap is not lined on the bottom.

The EPA began cleanup work on a 21-square-mile site in 1989, but has no plans to remove the Central Impoundment Facility from the river because of cost.

Zinc concentrations in the South Fork and nearby tributaries are more than 10 times stronger than the amount that can kill fish. About 20 miles of the South Fork are dead to fish. Although the South Fork provides only about 20 percent of the Coeur d'Alene River's total discharge to Coeur d'Alene Lake, the South Fork carries about 80 percent of the zinc entering the Lake. The EPA proposes to build water treatment facilities to remove much of the zinc.

Lower Basin
There are 18,000 acres of wetlands that have been poisoned by lead at levels toxic to waterfowl. Migrating tundra swans come here and die: 96 percent of all tundra swan deaths in the basin are attributed to lead poisoning.

In the lower Coeur d'Alene basin, a series of lateral lakes and wetlands have been transformed into "killing fields" where waterfowl and other wildlife are poisoned to death by the mine waste. More than 100 million tons of toxic waste, containing an estimated 880,000 tons of lead and more than 720,000 tons of zinc, have settled here. Because the total contaminated floodplain area in the lower basin is so large, the EPA is proposing to clean up only seven highly poisoned sites that are heavily used by wildlife. These sites, ranging from 44 to 300 acres, were also selected for low potential for recontamination during floods. The EPA also plans to cleanup farmland that would designated "safe feeding areas" for birds. But another 18 areas important to wildlife will not be addressed, at least during the first 20 to 30 years of cleanup.

Fish consumption advisories have been posted in the Lower Basin.

Lake Coeur d'Alene
During normal years, some 20 tons of lead enters Lake Coeur d'Alene, most of which remains there. Some has ended up on the beaches at Harrison, a small town on the lake's eastern shore. There, lead concentrations above 40,000 parts per million have been detected.

Enough lead enters the lake at times to make it unsafe for drinking. The beautiful lake, some 24 miles long and 1 to 3 miles wide, is a popular tourist destination. The EPA says beaches around the lake have been found safe for swimming, wading and sunbathing, and users don't have to worry about mining contamination. Contamination in the lake is great enough to cause problems for fish, but there's no information about whether eating fish from the lake is hazardous to people with a subsistence diet. A study is planned for 2002.

As a side effect of cleanup, lowering zinc contamination in the river system could cause an increase in phosphorous in the lake.

The EPA is not proposing to remove the 72 million tons of mining waste that sits at the bottom of Lake Coeur d'Alene. Its scientists say this material is not like to move, unless water chemistry changes. Instead, state, tribal, federal, and local governments are implementing a lake management plan to reduce the probability of metals being released from the sediments at the lake bottom.

The health of Lake Coeur d'Alene is a major concern for the Coeur d'Alene Tribes, which view the EPA plan as inadequate. The EPA provides "no funding" to cover the cost of implementing the lake management plan, passing costs along to tribal, state and local governments. "This is wrong," says tribal attorney Raymond Givens. "The cost of that must be paid as all other remedies (in the basin) are paid, through Superfund."

Spokane River
Lake Coeur d'Alene discharges about 3 tons of lead each year into the Spokane River.

The EPA says it would have to remove 50 percent of the lead from the basin before the Spokane River met federal water quality standards. Fine-grained toxic material washes through the lake and deposits as sediment within the 100-mile Spokane River floodplain. The EPA proposes to address lead pollution at 11 sites located within the first 16 miles downstream from the Idaho border. These areas will be monitored for recontamination.

Sediments at one beach close to the Idaho state line contain lead at twice the levels considered safe for recreation, as well as cancer-causing arsenic at nearly three times the safe limit, the EPA has reported. Other beaches have elevated arsenic levels.

But the EPA has decided to delay much work elsewhere in the Spokane basin until some "uncertain future date," according to the Spokane Tribes, which relies on the river for subsistence. The Spokane River has greater amounts of heavy metal contamination than the Clark Fork River in Montana, yet the EPA is putting far greater effort into cleaning up the Clark Fork. This suggests that if the Spokane River were not associated with the larger problems of the Basin, it would be receiving significantly more focused attention from EPA," the Spokane Tribes said in comments on the plan.

These things matter to the Spokane Tribes, who claim the cleanup "is not even protective of children in town, much less tribal children gathering water potatoes and pursuing other traditional activities as part of their cultural education and general lifestyles."

Tribal members who practice a subsistence lifestyle are directly impacted by cleanup decisions. In August 1999, the Washington State Departments of Ecology and Health, along with the Spokane Regional Health District, advised the public to avoid eating Spokane River fish, largely because rainbow trout, mountain whitefish and largescale suckers were found to contain high levels of PCBs. These fish also had higher than normal lead levels from the Washington/Idaho state line to just upstream of Nine Mile Dam.

A Washington Department of Ecology study in July 2001 found that pollution in the river can affect Spokane's drinking water supply. However, monitoring wells beneath the river have detected cadmium, lead and zinc in the aquifer at levels considered safe for drinking.

These metals eventually reach the Columbia River. In 1999, the U.S.G.S. reported the Columbia received 2,110 pounds of cadmium, 25,000 pounds of lead and 764,000 pounds of zinc from the Spokane-Coeur d'Alene system.

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