From the June 2006 Idaho Observer:

Citizens mount 11th hour effort to prevent surprise lake poisoning

by Don Harkins

Like so many lakes throughout the U.S., north Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille has become suitable for the growth of Eurasian water milfoil—an aquatic plant that can root in 30 feet of water to create huge mats of seaweed on the surface. The hugely prolific plant establishes itself in areas where nutrients from septic tank seepage and organophosphate fertilizer runoff enter lakes. As more people move into the area, the amount of nutrients available to the milfoil increases, perpetuating a cycle of growth that is really only harmful to recreation activities, primarily boating. Ironically, it is commonly understood that lake-hopping boats are the main conduit for the spreading of milfoil from one lake to another.

Four million dollars in grant money was made available to the state of Idaho for milfoil eradication. Rep. Eric Anderson secured $1.6 million for Lake Pend Oreille. The plan to poison the lake with 400,000 gallons of the 2-4-D/fluridone herbicide "Sonar" was announced in a not-very-well-publicized meeting in Priest River June 2, 2006. The meeting, attended by Sagle resident Jackie Lindenbach and inventor Dwight Finney, was intended to meet a statutory obligation to seek public input even though the decision to chemically poison the lake had already been administratively decided without considering public comment with regard to health concerns, environmental concerns or other options.

Finney, who has invented a machine to harvest the milfoil so the nitrogen-rich "crop" can be harvested for composting, creating ethanol or feeding to cattle, was dismissed by the meeting chair as an opportunist; Lindenbach, concerned about the adverse effects of human and animal exposure to a chemical of known toxicity (the 2-4-D component being half of Agent Orange) was dismissed as paranoid because they believe the chemical company’s claims that Sonar is "safe."

Realizing that no amount of common sense or concern (or that fact that the stuff does not "eradicate" the milfoil, but rather makes the problem worse over a two-to-four-year cycle) would derail the plan to poison the lake, Lindenbach rallied to generate public awareness that, as soon as June 15, the lake was going to be poisoned without adequate public notice or considering less toxic options.

Area residents were surprised and outraged that their lake was about to be poisoned. After a few well-attended public meetings, a movement was born. The poisoning date was moved to June 28 and the local newspaper reported in a fair and balanced manner slanted toward those organizing to oppose poisoning the lake. Those meetings revealed overwhelming public support, leading to the birth of "Citizens for Sustainable Solutions (CSS)" and the formation of committees—research, legal, public relations, fund raising and development of electronic communications. The entire spectrum of professionals, workers, wealthy people, poor people, landowners, renters, Republicans and Democrats are working together through CSS to prevent the poisoning of their lake—and the Pend Oreille river it flows into, crossing into Washington, then Canada where it eventually empties into the Columbia River.

The effort has elevated the issue from uninformed obscurity to one of tremendous controversy and the controversy is centered on the fact that decisions to potentially cause irreparable harm to the lake with dangerous chemicals were made without informing the public, conducting environmental impact studies or considering other options.

A public notice from Leslie Marshall of the Noxious Weeds branch of the Bonner County Public Works Department, published in the Bonner County Daily Bee June 21, 2006, detailed the proposed poisoning of the lake and characterizes the "milfoil eradication program" with Sonar as an "experiment."

Though it appears that the state is determined to go ahead with the poisoning, the date has now been pushed back to July 10. In a short period of time, CSS members have come to understand the dirty politics behind the decision to poison the lake and have invited 62 public officials to attend a forum June 29 in which mechanical, chemical and biological options will be discussed. It turns out that the grant does not specify using chemicals in an attempt to eradicate milfoil. It was simply the most expedient way to get that grant money spent. Upon review of a comprehensive guidance document from 2002 in which a plan to eradicate milfoil was being proposed, public officials were charged with researching the feasibility of chemical as well as mechanical and biological methods of control. "We are just taking it upon ourselves to do what they said they were supposed to do before making a decision to poison our lake," commented CSS Chairman Steve Holt.

The research committee is gathering data on the various techniques to control the noxious weed and will compile it into booklets for forum attendees. The committee has found a treasure trove of documentation showing successes and failures of various techniques to serve as excellent guidance data for informed decision making. The committee has also arranged for EnviroSciences of Ohio to come out and tour the lake in advance of the forum and propose what biological options are practical.

The legal committee is researching its options to obtain a court order to prevent the dumping of chemicals in the lake. The group believes that the state should be enjoined from using chemicals until it can be determined that doing so will not cause irreparable harm to the lake, the balance of aquatic life in the lake or the health of area residents and downstreamers. However, the group recognizes that there may not be time to secure a court order before July 10.

The public relations committee has come up with some very creative, non-violent, civilly-disobedient ideas to generate a groundswell of public opposition to the chemical eradication plan. If those plans (which will be reported at a later date) succeed, the 400,000 gallons of Sonar will have to be dumped under the cover of darkness because the plan will have become so notoriously unpopular that the dumpers will be ashamed to openly implement the plan in broad daylight.

As an aside, there are those common, corporate-neutral citizens who believe that chemicals are the best way to deal with the problem. They are primarily lakefront property owners who want the state to just take care of the milfoil affecting them without the cost of doing so coming directly out of their pockets. Other pro-chemical people are those who still believe the Dow Chemical mantra of the 50s and 60s—"Better living through chemistry." However, most stated they would support a campaign to make sure that chemicals would not be used where children traditionally swim, like city beach.

As this column is being written, the electronic connections are being made and alliances between groups with common goals are being formed. I have a feeling that public pressure is going to prevail and that either mechanical harvesting or biological methods will be used to control milfoil this year or the chemical eradication program will be abandoned (for this year) as a public relations nightmare.

The reason this effort is so important is clear: For political and bureaucratic expediency, public officials will blindly make decisions that may cause irreparable harm—in this case to our lakes and rivers—causing humans, plants and animals to become acutely and/or chronically ill and pass chemically-induced genetic damage onto future generations. In a Republic, no measure with such potentially dire implications should be undertaken without first weighing the risks and the benefits.

Call Jackie at (208) 265-2575 to be part of this campaign.

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