Basin cleanup timeline questioned

Officials feel public needs more time to look at proposal

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COEUR d'ALENE - Funding. Human health. Project timelines stretching across the next century.

None are adequately addressed in the new proposal for mining waste cleanup in the Upper Basin, say some North Idaho officials and business spokespeople.

"Our starting point is that the public should be allowed more time to consider this," said Phil Baker, CEO of Hecla Mining Co., speaking of the Upper Coeur d'Alene River Basin Proposed Plan, which the Environmental Protection Agency currently has opened to public comment.

Baker wondered why the massive document, proposing $1.34 billion in cleanup projects along the South Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River and its tributaries, is being pushed through so quickly.

Businesses, elected officials and North Idaho residents can't wrap their heads around the more than 2,000 pages in the 45-day comment period, he said.

He's also disappointed only one public meeting has been scheduled.

"It (the public comment period) should be extended to 2011," Baker said.

The Coeur d'Alene Chamber of Commerce submitted a request for a 90-day extension on Tuesday, said CEO and President Todd Christensen.

"It's unrealistic that the comment period is 45 days on such an item that has a lasting impact and is so critically important to North Idaho," he said.

The chamber itself needs more time to analyze its potential effects on local businesses, he added.

"Our community has a history of and continues to have a natural-resource based economy, especially as you look at the Silver Valley," he said. "Mining is an important part of the North Idaho, Kootenai-Shoshone county communities. This proposal has a dramatic impact on the sustainability of those businesses."

There are other problems some see with the cleanup document.

Shoshone County Commissioner Jon Cantamessa said the plan doesn't focus enough on human health issues.

In particular, he said, about preventing flooding where cleanup has already occurred in his county.

Flooding of contaminated rivers could re-contaminate properties that have been remediated, he said, destroying millions in cleanup that has been done.

"This solution needs to be soon. That flood could be next spring," Cantamessa said.

Although $34 million is set aside for remedy protection actions in the new plan, the commissioner isn't satisfied with the proposal.

"We don't think the language is strong enough to provide a solution," he said.

Baker worried that the cleanup activity could hurt Hecla, which is the largest employer in Shoshone County, he said.

Superfund cleanup can place a stigma on the area that deters investors, he said.

"We're exploring to grow the business in the Silver Valley," he said.

On top of that, the cleanup could mean the removal of some of the company's active tailing facilities, he added, which he thinks there is no obvious need for.

The plan appears to also include new regulations for mining in the area that are unclear, he said.

"This is related to our ability to operate and our ability to grow," he said.

Cleanup projects are also set for a dizzying time frame, Cantamessa said.

Some cleanup activities are expected to continue for up to 50 to 90 years, he said.

A more reasonable approach, he suggested, would be to update the plan every five to 10 years to account for changes in the environment or in technology.

"We may find those problems have significantly improved," he said.

Funding could also be an issue, pointed out Stefany Bales with Pac/West, representing Hecla.

"$1.34 billion is a lot of money to ask from the federal government right now," she said.

She added that the state will be responsible for 100 percent of the cost to maintain the cleanup activities, with no clear source for such funding.

"It's an unfunded mandate," she said.

Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, said she has planned to ask for an extension on the document.

She pointed to a resolution the Legislature passed this year requesting that citizens and the state have ample time to review and comment on any record of decision or amendment concerning the Superfund site.

"They're proposing it (new cleanup) over a long period of time, 50 to 90 years, and that's a lot to consider in 45 days," she said. "I think that the average citizen will need more time than that. I think the lawyers who work for companies will need more time than that to determine long-term ramifications."

There are some answers to these concerns, said Anne Dailey, EPA project manager.

The EPA has considered periodic updates to the plan as Cantamessa suggested, Dailey said.

The 90-year outlook is merely to help with long-term planning, she said.

"We feel it's appropriate to establish a roadmap for the Upper Basin cleanup to understand the scope and scale and cost of cleanup," she said.

At least a portion of the proposed cleanup will be covered by the $480 million awarded to the Bunker Hill Superfund site in the ASARCO bankruptcy settlement last December, she said.

"That money is being invested, so it's earning interest at this time and hopefully that money will grow," she said. "And we're looking at other responsible parties to potentially pay their share of that."

She added that any projects completed with ASARCO trust money can also be maintained with ASARCO money.

"The state doesn't have to pay maintenance costs of projects under ASARCO trust money," she said.

Dailey said the EPA will consider any requests for extensions to the 45-day public comment period.

She hadn't heard of any as of Wednesday afternoon.

The 45 days is already extended from the usual 30-day comment period, she added.

And the public had ample opportunities to comment at technical and basin commission meetings when the draft was being written over the last year and a half, she said.

"We visited with a number of community groups as we've been putting the plan together," she said.

As for human health issues, a group is being headed by Terry Harwood, executive director of the Basin Environmental Improvement Project Commission, to address potential flooding at South Fork and Pine Creek.

"We certainly recognize that flooding in the South Fork and Pine Creek is a system-wide issue," she said. "Human health cleanup is the agency's top priority."

She said the federal government has kept up communication with Hecla about cleanup plans and how the mining industry can continue during those efforts.

"The EPA certainly recognizes that mining is very important to the basin," she said. "We're interested in working with all landowners, not just mining companies, on cleaning up mining waste on their properties."

Cleanup has also helped local communities by providing jobs, she added.

"Certainly the cleanup will create jobs and does diversify the economy," she said.

Dailey encouraged many to attend the open house and public meeting next Wednesday at the Shoshone Medical Center facility in Smelterville. The open house is scheduled from 5 to 6:30 p.m., and the public meeting from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

"Public input is really important for this process," she said. "There are lots of opportunities for people to be involved in helping the future."

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