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Officials hype alternate EPA plan

by Alecia Warren
| November 20, 2010 8:00 PM

COEUR d'ALENE - The federal government could save itself decades of work and a billion dollars if it would just listen, according to officials in Shoshone County and a Coeur d'Alene mining company.

The Environmental Protection Agency has been deaf to complaints about the length and cost of its proposed Upper Basin Cleanup Plan, say Shoshone County Commissioner Jon Cantamessa, Wallace Mayor Dick Vester and Phil Baker of HECLA Mining Co.

They hope public opinion will persuade the agency to support HECLA's alternate 10-year plan for cleaning up mining waste in the region.

The company's version, Vester said, is appealingly less permanent than the EPA's, projected to stretch 50 to 90 years.

"I'd say opposition to the 50 to 90 year plan is universal," Vester said at an editorial meeting at The Press office on Friday. "The idea is it's going to go on forever."

Members of the public have been looking for an alternative to the costly $1.3 billion plan EPA is currently pushing forward, Vester said.

HECLA's plan, proposed a few weeks ago, provides a sense of certainty in spelling out short-term projects, he said. The document calls for $150 to $175 million in cleanup activity over 10 years.

"For those who support the 10-year plan and not the long-term, it's not that we want cleanup to end in 10 years," Vester said. "If we have to do another Record of Decision at the end of 10 years, so be it."

There are many aspects of the EPA plan Vester finds troubling, he added.

Like the vagueness of the plan's adaptive management approach, calling for projects to change as they're evaluated over time.

A Record of Decision spanning nearly a century gives the EPA too much leeway in making those changes without public comment, he said.

"It has more to do with going back and going through those stages of discussing things with people," Vester said.

A decades-long time frame for cleanup also deters investments in Silver Valley mining activities, the mayor added, costing industry jobs.

"People who should be spending in the Silver Valley, they're not coming there," Vester said. "It's because of the uncertainty in that 50 to 90 years. A lot of what they (investors) are looking at is seeing what the environment is for the next year or two."

Cantamessa said he believes the HECLA plan would focus more on human health projects.

"Only a few million (of the EPA plan) is directed at human health," he said. "The rest is environment."

The pricetag on the 10-year plan is also more realistic, the commissioner said. He doesn't think EPA can cover its projected cost.

"Driving this shift to environmental (cleanup) is the Asarco settlement. They have a significant amount of money, and have projects they want to spend that on," Cantamessa said, referring to the $494 million the EPA gained in the Asarco bankruptcy settlement last year.

Despite all these points, Vester said, an EPA representative wasn't open to discussion last week.

"They very first thing he said was, 'We don't support the 10-year plan,'" Vester remembered.

Anne Dailey, EPA project manager, said the agency will review all public comments.

"We'll be looking at those very seriously and considering each one of them," she said.

So far, most comments mirror the official's complaints, Dailey said.

"They think it's too big and too costly and it'll take too long," she said.

She has a confident response.

"It's a big site out there, with a hundred-plus years of contamination," she said. "It's going to take quite a while to clean it up."

She confirmed the EPA doesn't support the 10-year plan.

HECLA's proposal wouldn't meet the cleanup standards the EPA is legally mandated to meet, she said.

The agency also prefers to have one comprehensive plan that shows long-term goals, she added.

That makes it easier to budget for projects down the road, and sidestep the costly process of passing a new ROD every several years.

"It makes sense to us to get the job done now and be thorough about it, instead of take a piecemeal approach," she said.

The EPA believes it can fund the proposed plan, she said, with funds from legal settlements from mining companies and the federal government.

"That money will continue to grow," she said of the invested dollars.

She added that much of the proposed plan, like cleaning contaminated soil at mining and mill sites, will protect human health.

"Hopefully we'll be able to clean it up more quickly than the plan indicates, but it's hard to know for sure until we start," she said.

The deadline for public comment on the EPA cleanup plan is Nov. 23.

After responding to comments, the agency will issue the final cleanup decision in a Record of Decision Amendment in 2011.

"We are very serious about addressing comments," Dailey said. "But recognize we have a mandate to protect human health and the environment."

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