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Superfund cleanup in Idaho draws local opposition

People who live around a toxic former silver mining complex in Idaho have a message for federal environmental officials who want to expand a lengthy cleanup effort: Go home, your help is no longer wanted.

Despite the government’s best intentions, some locals think a prolonged federal presence will scare away businesses by sending a message that the Silver Valley is a dangerous place to live. Residents and politicians in this conservative region also believe it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars and that the real intention of the government is to shut down the remaining mines.

“They’ve got their environmental science degree from some place like Berkeley and they drive their Prius to the back hills of Idaho and here are a bunch of miners and they want to do what they think is best for us,” said attorney James McMillan.

The Environmental Protection Agency has spent nearly 20 years cleaning up the Superfund site in Kellogg that was once one of the most-polluted places in the country, with arsenic and lead stripping the hillsides of vegetation and poisoning the blood of children.

The cleanup efforts have greened the mountains and improved human health, although pollution still exists. Some streams and rivers are so polluted that stretches have no aquatic life, and migrating swans that land on them die.

The EPA wants to expand the cleanup to outlying and aquatic areas – some 300 square miles of the Coeur d’Alene River Basin. The expanded cleanup could take up to 90 years to complete.

While some people support the effort, others say the work should wind down and the EPA should leave.

Two public hearings in the past week drew more than 200 people each, many voicing opposition to the expansion of what is already one of the nation’s largest Superfund sites.

The opposition was so heated that EPA has agreed to extend the public comment period beyond Aug. 25 to give people more time to study the plan.

Business leaders worry an expansion will hurt the remaining mines in the area, and Republican Idaho Gov. Butch Otter complained about the long timeframe for the work.

“I will not support an open-ended bureaucratic process that amounts to a blank check for the EPA,” Otter said at a meeting Monday.

Environmental groups support the expansion, which would cost an estimated $1.3 billion over the next 50 to 90 years to clean up waterways polluted by mining waste. Lead exposure has been documented in thousands of residents, plus 27 wildlife species.

“It captures the scope and scale of the problem,” said Terry Harris, executive director of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance, of the expansion plan. “We need to get on with the cleanup.”

He believes people who call for the EPA to end its work are unrealistic.

“I don’t know that the law and science will allow EPA to walk away from what is an enormous problem,” Harris said.

Numerous managers and employees of the Lucky Friday Mine, which employs 350 people in the area and is looking to expand, used the public meetings to express concern about their jobs. They are worried the EPA’s real intention is to kill the remaining mines.

Dan Opalski, head of Superfund work for the EPA regional office in Seattle, disputes that allegation.

“We can be supportive of responsible mining,” Opalski said. “We understand that part of our cleanup being successful is for the valley itself to have a level of economic health.”

Opalski defended the work done so far, pointing to the dramatic reduction in the blood lead levels of children, which at one time was among the highest recorded in the nation. Lead interferes with the nervous system and can lead to learning disorders.

The new work would add 425 jobs to an existing EPA work force of 200 in one of Idaho’s most depressed regions, the EPA has said.

The new plan targets old mine sites and waste rock piles, which leach lead, arsenic, cadmium and other heavy metals downstream. Frequent flooding spreads the metals and people who use the shoreline for recreation can be exposed, EPA said.

The plan’s length and price tag reflect what is required to make the area healthy for people and wildlife, Opalski said.

The old Bunker Hill Mining Co. mined and smelted lead and silver here for decades, ignoring its own findings that it was poisoning its work force and their families.

The expansion would be partially funded by a recent $500 million settlement with Asarco, one of Bunker Hill’s successors, Opalski said. The rest of the money would have to be raised.

Idaho’s congressional delegation asked for the extension of the public comment period to give parties more time for study. The EPA may make a final decision on the expansion by the end of the year, Opalski said.

About The Associated Press