From the June 1999 Idaho Observer:

EPA to enforce "challenging" CDA Basin water standards

Fed mandate expected to raise taxes, increase utilities, eliminate jobs, negatively impact businesses -- with no guarantee of better water

by Don Harkins

COEUR D' ALENE -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held public meetings in Wallace and Osburn May 18 and May 25 to inform Silver Valley residents that the agency intends to enforce tightened Total Maximum Daily Loading (TMDL) standards on area water quality. As far as the EPA is concerned, the Silver Valley has been under EPA jurisdiction since the agency used inflated heavy metals figured derived from questionable science to declare the lead and silver mining region a SuperFund cleanup site in the early 1980s.

The EPA has established its TMDLs in accordance with a federal document called the “Gold Book.” The TMDLs proposed by the EPA are more severe than those found in the federal Clean Water Act.

Local residents packed the meetings in vocal opposition to the proposed EPA standards. Citizens have responded to the EPA by circulating a petition that states, “We the undersigned residents of the Coeur d' Alene River Basin request EPA and the State of Idaho to rescind the currently proposed limits for Total Maximum Daily Loading (TMDL) to the river system and replace it with TMDLs that are based on local conditions, considering the beneficial uses of the water that would protect the Silver Valley's economy.”

The EPA TMDLs are arbitrarily derived standards that do not take into account the physical reality that the region is naturally more mineral laden than most regions of the country. Local residents want clean water and swimmable lakes and rivers and are interested in adopting standards that provide for a healthy environment but do not unnecessarily impact the region's economy.

“Hundreds and hundreds of Silver Valley residents, business leaders, elected officials, mining engineers, miners, geologists, bankers, store owner, etc., showed up to hear what the EPA had to say,” said Shirley Hindley of the CDA Association of Realators, who added that these concerned people showed up “to protect their jobs, their communities and their wallets.”

EPA spokespersons told their audience that they have identified 70 discrete (permitted) measurable sources where metals find their way into ground water and that such sources must not exceed 25 percent of the total metals found in water systems. According to Hindley, when the EPA was asked what it currently estimated metal loading levels to be, at least the EPA answered honestly: “We don't know.”

EPA proposes to allow 65 percent of the balance of the metal loading to be gotten from natural sources and has decided to keep the remaining 10 percent for itself as a margin of safety.

If the EPA standards are adopted it is expected that affected communities will experience higher sewer and water rates, tax increases and a loss of jobs in the already depressed Silver Valley mining towns.

“We have no intention to put anyone out of business, that's the last thing we want to do,” an EPA spokesperson said to the justifiably skeptical crowd.

Tom Fudge of Hecla Mining Corporation said that, “If we reduce the lead by 40 percent and zinc by 60 percent we would meet Washington standards. Then we would not have to meet the Gold Book criteria to comply with the Clean Water Act. The TMDLs are unnecessary.”

Smelterville Mayor Bill Keller and the Mullan wastewater treatment plant manager both agree that the small communities will not be able to meet EPA standards and to replace the Mullan wastewater treatment plant alone is estimated to cost $34.8 million.

The EPA proved to everybody in attendance that its true intentions in the Silver Valley are suspect. It told meeting attendees that the background levels of metals do not contaminate rivers and that their only concern is mining activities and that, for example, they tested upstream from a mine they found in Larson. “The residents were shocked,” reported Hindley. “The mine in Larson is a copper mine, containing little lead, zinc or cadmium (the only metals that EPA is worried about). The EPA was obviously embarrassed,” Hindley continued and mentioned that it brought to light for all those in attendance that EPA employees have no idea what they are doing.

The EPA has not provided proof that the current levels of metal loading are diminishing the quality of groundwater. The EPA cannot prove that the enforcement of its TMDLs will appeciably improve water quality in the affected area that encompasses the Coeur d' Alene River from Mullan to the Spokane River at the state line.

Regardless that the EPA has no proof that its admittedly “challenging” standards will accomplish anything of benefit to the environment, leaders from local business and government all agree that compliance with EPA dictates will increase taxes and the cost of utilities will soar exponentially. Jobs will be lost and a wide variety of businesses will be negatively impacted.

Four different members of the audience asked the EPA whether or not outspoken public opposition will in any way deter the EPA's plans to implement its TMDLs. According to Hindley, “They did not answer the question...”

The EPA also stated for the crowd that, “Contaminated lake sediments are not believed to be a significant source of dissolved metals.”

EPA has spent the last 10 years and millions of dollars studying and testing Lake Coeur d' Alene for heavy metals that have settled in the lake as a result of 100 years of mining activity runoff from the Coeur d' Alene River.

Last fall the EPA announced that it intended to declare the lake a SuperFund cleanup site and dredge (stir up) all of that heavy metal-laden sediment that has been held in really deep, cold water where it has been for decades -- where it appears to cause no harm to anything.

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