Washington, Idaho feud over mining cleanup


Associated Press

SPOKANE — Like neighbors bickering over dog droppings, politicians in Washington and Idaho are battling over who should clean up decades worth of mining pollution in the Silver Valley.

The pollution, including lead and arsenic, flowed into Idaho’s Lake Coeur d’Alene, and entered Washington through the Spokane River, traveling all the way to its confluence with the Columbia.

All sides agree the river basin should be cleaned up, but they differ on the approach.

Idaho officials want more control, and want the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, especially its dreaded Superfund designation, to butt out.

A big reason is that mining jobs have declined, while tourism to northern Idaho’s lakes and ski resorts has become a big business. Idahoans fear that few vacationers will schedule trips to Superfund sites.

That makes many Washington residents suspicious that Idaho is more interested in cleaning up its image than its pollution. Washington wants the EPA to largely fund and control the work.

"We cannot be dependent on Idaho’s legislators to protect Washington citizens, only Idaho mining companies," Jeffrey Hedge of Spokane complained at a recent public hearing in Spokane.

The EPA designated a 21-square-mile area around Kellogg, Idaho, a Superfund site in 1983, and nearly finished cleaning it up. Environmental groups are now pushing for a much larger cleanup of the entire Coeur d’Alene River Basin.

The EPA is conducting studies and will decide next year if it should extend cleanup work all the way into Washington state, and whether to use Superfund trust money.

Two public hearings — on Aug. 19 in Coeur d’Alene and Nov. 14 in Spokane — drew many of the region’s power brokers.

Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, Sens. Mike Crapo and Larry Craig and Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage, all Idaho Republicans, appeared at the Idaho event.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chaired the Spokane event, and said EPA must ensure that the health of people along the Spokane River will be protected.

"We see EPA as being the only body that can do a thorough, fair job," added Jani Gilbert, a spokeswoman for the Washington state Department of Ecology.

That feeling is not universal. Republican Rep. George Nethercutt, who represents the Spokane area in Congress, said "a Superfund designation would buy gridlock and litigation."

Washington officials became interested in the issue in 1998, when federal scientists detected high levels of lead, arsenic and zinc in a 90-mile stretch of the Spokane River, from Post Falls, Idaho, to Lake Roosevelt in Eastern Washington.

The extent of the pollution is unclear, and it is not considered an imminent threat to human health. But signs have been posted along the river which warn that swallowing or breathing soil may pose health risks.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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