Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Billion-Dollar Boondoggle

The federal government charges its Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with protecting human health and the environment. Over the last thirty years it has worked effectively in the North Idaho "Silver Valley" mining area (lead, zinc and silver) to decrease health hazards through covering the site of the lead smelter and zinc refinery, and removal of polluted soil from yards, parks and playgrounds. Blood lead levels rarely exceed the national safety level of 10 micrograms per deciliter nowadays, and free blood tests are still available to those who request them.

Although EPA tells us that human health is no longer at risk from lead, zinc, arsenic and other minerals in the environment, it wants to extend its work to the whole watershed of the Coeur d'Alene River's South Fork, to protect fish and other wildlife, because some species are sensitive to zinc levels that are harmless to humans. The cost of the project, they estimate, will be 1.3 billion dollars, and the duration will be 30 to 90 more years or longer.

Their premise has some logic. Shoshone County, Idaho, has been a major mining area for 125 years, with over 300 mine sites, most of them small and no longer operating. Some of the mine tailings and ground water sources still have significant mineral content. EPA wants to funnel all those sources (a volume estimated at 30,000 gallons per minute, or about 5% of the river's volume) into the EPA's Central Treatment Plant at Kellogg, which currently handles about 1/10th that volume. There, the metals are precipitated out by raising the water's pH and trapping the metals in a flocculent sludge with alum. The purified water, no longer acidic, is put back into the river. EPA pumps the sludge to a 2-acre pit on top of the nearby Central Impoundment Area (CIA).

The CIA is a 200+ acre collection of tailings from the Bunker Hill Mine (lead, zinc and silver) which the EPA covered over with plastic sheeting and then laid down clean soil and grass on top of that, to prevent recontamination of the surrounding cleaned-up areas. All of the CI Area is sealed off except for the sludge pit destined to take water pollutants from the whole South Fork drainage basin. The pit has no plastic lining or anything else to prevent fluid from the sludge from draining downward into the original alluvial plain and aquifer that feeds into the adjacent South Fork River.

When I asked EPA how fast seepage of the sludge liquid occurred, EPA estimated 9 gallons per minute; the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) estimated 35 gpm. A couple of 5 gallon bucketsful seeping downward into the soil doesn't sound too alarming until you multiply 10 gpm x 60 minutes x 24 hrs x 365 days and get a figure of over 5 million gallons each of the last 10 years plus five to seven more years before EPA intends to make a new, plastic-sealed sludge pit. When I asked the metal content of this seepage, both DEQ and EPA said they didn't know. Probably most of the pollutants remain in the sludge, but before I risked re-contaminating the lakes and river downstream, I'd try and find out. Five million gallons a year wouldn't have to carry much.

One of EPA's dilemmas is finding places to deposit the lead/zinc-polluted soil they have dug up from house lawns all over the valley. There are quite a few uninhabited gulches available, several of which they have already used, but the present repository they are placing in the middle of the river's flood plain, next to a large marsh inhabited by the very birds and fish they are trying to protect. The Coeur d'Alene River floods every few years; a flood in a tributary in 1974 took out the eastbound lanes of Interstate 90, not to mention houses. A flood sweeping away the contaminated soil could undo the EPA's last 20 years of cleanup. EPA appears unconcerned

And then there is the cost—1.3 billion dollars. The so-called Asarco Trust Fund, from fines and settlement with the mining companies contains about 0.45 billion, and EPA is quick to point out that it can generate twenty million in interest (but only if they don't spend the principal.) Other than that, and some of EPA's own budget, the only source of funds would from Idaho citizens' taxes. Raising $ 900 million from about 2 million people is allegedly legal, but I question its morality, spending that much on the health of a few thousand fish and birds when the state is cutting back on funding for schools, medical care, roads, and other human needs

There wil be a public meeting August 4th where EPA will once again present its case, and another on August 9 when Idaho legislators and business people will present theirs. I hope common sense will prevail. Not always the case in politics.